The French Dispatch was reviewed out of the New York Film Festival, and will debut in theaters on Oct. 22.
The French Dispatch is studded with stars and sprinkled with Wes Anderson’s signature pastels and storybook design, though like many of his works — recent films like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs in particular — it uses that whimsical approach as a cushion for weightier and more melancholy themes. The interconnected anthology follows a fictitious American newspaper in an equally fictitious French small town, but its various segments take after real reporters and articles, mostly New Yorker pieces the director read in his teenage years. The film is Anderson’s ode to print journalism of the past, and it arrives with his familiar visual flourishes (with a few new ones added along the way), which dramatize both the thoughtfulness and the riveting energy of chronicling history as it unfolds.
In The French Dispatch, that history is an imaginary blend between America and France, the former being the place Anderson is from, and the latter a place you could easily imagine he wishes he were from (if his French New Wave-inspired early works are anything to go by). The story begins with a 1975 obituary, both for editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), and for the paper he founded 50 years prior, the French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Howitzer Jr., based in part on New Yorker co-founder Harold Ross, was a stern man of few words — as the film goes on to show, since the obituary segment is used to frame the rest of the story in flashbacks — but Anderson depicts him with reverence, and with a solemn respect for a dying art. His paper was dedicated to bringing France and French culture to Kansas, the kind of global window you might picture a young Anderson fervently gazing through, via the magazine articles that informed his four subsequent stories.
Another short prologue follows travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) as he gives us a tour of the lively-but-macabre nooks and crannies of the wryly named town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. It feels like a disaffected teenager’s idea of French artistry (the town’s name means “tedium,” and it’s located on the river “indifference”), but the film is anything but nihilistic or emotionally distant, despite this tongue-in-cheek introduction. Sazerac is based on New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, best known for his focus on the grimier, more disreputable elements of NYC, and Anderson’s framing of the character and his writing appears to harken back to (and in some ways, critique) a mal-formed perspective on the touching and distinctly human reality Mitchell brought to the page.
This story sets the stage for the rest of the film in two key ways. The first is how it uses Bill Murray’s Howitzer Jr. as a contrasting voice of reason and authority, reining in the fussy (though self-aware) cynicism Anderson ascribes to Sazerac, as if the editor were correcting a teenage Anderson’s misconceptions about the true nature of Mitchell’s work. The second is the way it uses color. Sazerac’s tour of the city — a seeming dramatization of a fantasy article he wrote — involves a split-screen contrast between black and white images of Ennui’s past and contemporary color photographs. This simple, recognizable visual language continues throughout the film, with each section featuring a framing device in color before its main story unfolds in black-and-white flashbacks — with a few key exceptions. Within each flashback, brief bursts of color envelop the screen, usually when a character lays eyes on a memorable piece of art, or something moving or alluring, as if these fleeting moments and sensations from long ago have lingered with them in the present. It’s art as memory, an idea the film eventually embodies.
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This brief travelogue is followed by the first main segment, titled “The Concrete Masterpiece,” which features the recollections of art critic J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) as she tells the story of long-incarcerated abstract artist Moses Rosenthaler (Tony Revolori/Benicio del Toro), as well as Rosenthaler’s muse and prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux) and the wild-eyed art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), who tries to manipulate the genius painter into creating more masterworks for him to sell. Cadazio is based on the real-life dealer Lord Duveen, and Anderson appears to take cues from the New Yorker’s six-part profile on him by S. N. Behrman, but the story is also wildly original, both in its bleakly funny conception of artistic inspiration and self-loathing, and its frenzied depiction of comedic action scenes. For some of these, Anderson and his long-time cinematographer Robert Yeoman leave behind their careful symmetry in favor of a more loose and hand-held camera (which, at one point, they even tether to a speeding wheelchair), but in other cases, the filmmakers lean into their established aesthetic to the point of delightful self-parody, making the actors hold still as the camera dollies sideways between enormous tableaus, each depicting snapshots of mayhem that blur the lines between “civil” society and the world behind prison walls.
The history in this segment is an uncanny blend between French flourishes and American atrocities, like one darkly humorous use of an electric chair, a device that has never been used in French prisons but remains an option in the United States. This hybrid approach to the past takes center stage in the second story, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” in which on-scene journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), based on The New Yorker’s Mavis Gallant, wrestles with her place in shaping history as she chronicles a youth revolution led by warring student factions, one headed by Juliette (Lyna Khoudri) and the other by Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet). Their names evoke the 1968 Romeo and Juliet film directed by Franco Zeffirelli, as if Anderson were mixing real and cinematic histories; he paints a starry-eyed picture of the revolt, which mirrors the real-life May ‘68 revolution in France (which Gallant covered at the time), but unfolds in the vein of a star-crossed romance. However, Anderson also pierces the story’s naïve and boisterous fabric with brief hints of a more solemn reality, albeit indirectly, through an in-world stage production — a technique he used to soften the edges of war and destruction in films like Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom, and one that became the self-reflexive premise of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which filters the atrocities of World War II through several layers of fictional retellings.
However, when the third main segment rolls around, even Anderson seems aware that there are only so many edges that can be sanded down. In “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” he reimagines queer author and Black civil rights activist James Baldwin as food critic Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) — the character also takes after The New Yorker food writer A.J. Liebling — in a story that ranks among some of the finest visual and thematic work in the filmmaker’s 25-year career. Wright, while being interviewed on a TV show in the 1970s, recalls his time in Ennui in the 1950s, and his assignment to profile an Asian immigrant chef/policeman, Lieutenant Nescaffier (Stephen Park). However, while writing the story, both he and Nescaffier are inadvertently roped into a sprawling (mis)adventure when the son of Ennui’s police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) is kidnapped by a mysterious criminal mastermind (Edward Norton).
The score, by Alexandre Desplat, becomes a mischievous ticking clock and doesn’t slow down for even a second as Wright walks us through his near-perfect recollections (he remembers events exactly as he wrote them, rather than as he saw them). At one point, Anderson and Yeoman employ a circular tracking shot with subtle hints of a zoom inward to capture the intoxicating culinary bliss brought about by Nescaffier’s famous food — a far cry from their usual linear camera movements, which capture characters at a distance. It’s as if they were letting loose some of their structured restraint. As it happens, this segment shines brightest when it feels distinctly un-Anderson in nature. His signature playfulness is occasionally interrupted by stark and unsettling moments as silent, unspoken threats begin to hover over Wright’s shoulder — for instance, the specter of incarceration, which holds special relevance to him as a Black man in a mostly white setting, and a gay man at a time when such things were punishable in many Western countries. In these moments, Anderson and Yeoman forego their usual wide angles and deep focus. Their rare use of a long lens not only blurs the vividly detailed backgrounds, but forces us to focus, first and foremost, on Wright’s fears and the quiet ways his humanity is threatened.
This segment has no lack of whimsy, of course. Its contrasts between explosive violence and children’s pop-up book staging is hilarious all on its own, and it even features Anderson’s most overt and amusing homage to The New Yorker: an extended chase scene animated by hand in the style of one of the magazine’s signature illustrations. But what makes this story feel whole is the way its cartoonish madness is ultimately grounded in a real story of outsiders like Wright and Nescaffier, whose brief but meaningful interactions feature a complicated wistfulness, hinting at a seemingly never-ending search for some idyllic belonging in different parts of the world (Baldwin, who spoke at length about American racism, also spent several years in Paris).
Perhaps more than anything in Anderson’s filmography, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” seems to put his cinematic fixations into words (or rather, into pictures). It portrays, in incisive fashion, the way his settings are inspired not by real places, but by locations as they exist within the cinematic imagination, as if he were on some never-ending quest, in constant search of a non-existent reality he has no choice but to create himself. His fairytale France is influenced by a litany of French filmmakers, and it comes gift-wrapped in his familiar style — only this time, his storybook aesthetic extends further into the third dimension, with a greater physical and emotional depth that extends far into the background. It feels more vast and stage-like, with more details and humanity hiding around each artificial corner.
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