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From page to screen – ‘The French Dispatch’

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There’s nothing quite like a Wes Anderson movie.

The writer/director has carved out an auteur space all his own, a space unlike that occupied by anyone else in American cinema. His films are exquisitely and meticulously constructed, so finely tuned and detailed that they play almost as kinetic dioramas. Each screen picture is built and presented just so, resulting in films packed with moments and images that linger in the memory.

“The French Dispatch” is Anderson’s latest, a film about a magazine intended to be an analog for The New Yorker. It makes total sense – the magazine shares many of Anderson’s tendencies toward specificity of presentation and an inherent preciousness that appeals to those of a certain mindset while also reading to others as pretention.

At any rate, that structural framework allows Anderson to do something he’s never really done before – an anthology film. And that separated story structure also allows him to pack even more talented and wildly famous performers than usual into this film’s 108 minutes or so, all while unspooling a trio of compelling tales, each of which is rich enough to hold up on its own as well as part of the larger whole.

The titular magazine is based in the town of Ennui, France, the product of a newspaper publishing scion’s long-ago journey to Europe. Once a little-read Sunday supplement called Picnic – an offshoot of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun newspaper – The French Dispatch has grown into a widely-read and celebrated standalone publication, home to some of the best and most innovative writing and reporting out there.

However, on the passing of editor and publisher Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), it is determined that this will be the final edition of the magazine. What follows is essentially a visual representation of the contents of that final edition, anchored by three of the best long-form stories from the magazine’s history.

The first is “The Concrete Masterpiece,” wherein an imprisoned and mentally disturbed artist named Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro) becomes a rapidly rising star in the modern art scene. This rise is prompted by his discovery by a fellow inmate, an art dealer named Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), who sees a nonrepresentational portrait painted by Moses at a prison art show. The model for the portrait – a prison guard named Simone (Lea Seydoux) – is both muse and lover to Moses.

However, Moses is less interested in the fame and fortune promised by Cadazio and his art dealing uncles (Bob Balaban and Henry Winkler). And when the artist’s newest work is brought forth, all hell breaks loose. The tale is told by arts writer J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton).

Next, we have “Revisions to a Manifesto.” This one sees writer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) inserting herself into a student revolution that winds up swamping the streets of Ennui in what will come to be called the “Chessboard Revolution.” At the center of this uprising is a young man named Zefferelli (Timothee Chalamet); despite Lucinda’s feints at journalistic integrity, she soon finds herself entangled with Zefferelli in more ways than one – much to the chagrin of the youngster’s revolutionary cohorts, including firebrand Juliette (Lyna Khoudri).

Lucinda looks for a way to remove herself from the situation while still encouraging Zefferelli to work on his still-evolving manifesto. True, many young revolutionaries meet early ends, but there is nothing expected about the continuation of Zefferelli’s journey.

Third is “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” courtesy of noted intellectual Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright). It’s a story within a story within a story, with Wright sharing his tale with a talk show host (Live Schreiber). It’s the story of a legendary police officer/chef named Lt. Nescaffier (Steve Park); Wright is invited by the Commissaire of Ennui’s Police (Mathieu Almaric) to dine with him and experience the incredible Nescaffier himself.

The dinner is complicated by a convoluted kidnapping plot aimed at the Commissaire’s young son (Winston Ait Hillal) executed by a bumbling Chauffeur (Edward Norton); it also involves a notably crooked accountant known as The Abacus (Willem Defoe) and a number of other unsavory types.

And in the midst of all of this, we also get a brief segment from the bicycling reporter Herbsaint Sazarac (Owen Wilson) and spend some time in the offices of The French Dispatch, meeting some of the idiosyncratic talents that work there.

You might be floored looking at the roster of A-listers and all-stars in this cast, but here’s the thing – I haven’t even mentioned Elisabeth Moss or Jason Schwartzman or Saoirse Ronan or Fisher Stevens or Cristoph Waltz or Angelica Huston. Like I said, this is an even more impressive ensemble than usual for Anderson – one of the best casts assembled in recent memory, I’d argue.

The magazine aesthetic is a perfect match for Anderson – “The French Dispatch” plays like an issue of the publication, with chapter headings and stories broken up by quick-hit items and quirky animations. It’s a thoughtful celebration of this particular kind of periodical while also deconstructing the underlying attitudes that contribute to such a magazine’s rise.

And all of it, of course, is informed by Anderson’s unique aesthetic and narrative sensibilities.

Unsurprisingly, the assorted Wes Anderson hallmarks are rampant. The squared wide-angle shots. The delicately built environments. Freeze frames that aren’t stills. Shifts from bright colors to muted pastels to black-and-white. Verbose, dryly witty dialogue. A perfectly-produced score bringing together the musicianship of Alexander Desplat and deep-cut pop. The list goes on and on.

And again, the tremendous cast. Trying to acknowledge the great work done by everyone on screen is a fool’s errand – I simply don’t have the space – but here are a few (though far from the only) highlights. Our three main writers – Swinton, McDormand and particularly Wright – are excellent. Love what del Toro brings to the screen; Seydoux is wonderful as well. Chalamet captures revolutionary fervor by way of teenagerdom. Wilson’s segment is a hoot. Murray is as outstanding as he always is in Anderson’s films. But honestly, whether they’re on screen for an entire segment or just a line or two, the cast is uniformly brilliant.

(As this is an anthology, I should probably try and tell you which part was my personal favorite. Now, I’ll confess that my feelings on that matter have changed multiple times since seeing the film and will likely keep on changing, but as I write this, I think I have to give the edge to “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” largely due to Wright’s exquisite performance and the nesting-doll-metanature of the piece.)

I ride hard for Wes Anderson, so I was always going to be in the bag for this one, particularly when you consider that it’s basically a love letter to writers and journalists. But just because I expected “The French Dispatch” to be great doesn’t alter that greatness. It is quintessentially Anderson, a film that brings all of his considerable gifts to bear, a tonal and thematic delight brought forward by a staggeringly talented and accomplished cast and crew.

Consider me a satisfied subscriber.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 08 November 2021 06:00


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