by Tim Jackson
Fans will be pleased that this time around director Wes Anderson has shot off everything in his stylistic quiver.
The French Dispatch, directed by Wes Anderson. Screening at Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square Cinema.
Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is the film one would expect from the director whose style has remained remarkably consistent in the years since his 1996 minimalist indie debut, Bottle Rocket. Fans will be pleased that this time around he has shot off everything in his stylistic quiver. All his signature features are there: a blend of surreal slapstick and real-world references set in a nostalgic past; clever narrations; stories within stories; recognizable stars and great faces; a romantic location; elaborate theatrical sets; rapid-fire dialogue; another great score by Alexandre Desplat; and the photography of Robert Yeoman.
The location is the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The French Dispatch, a supplement of the Liberty, KS, Evening Sun newspaper, is publishing its final issue. The editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr., has died. Four rambling vignettes recall the contributors of writers for the mythical publication. This is Anderson’s homage to the New Yorker and its journalists: Howitzer is a hybrid of the magazine’s co-founder and editor-in-chief Harold Ross, with a touch of editor William Shawn. Bill Murray’s implacable demeanor has made him the paterfamilias of the Anderson universe and he is suitably cast.
Essentially, this is a farce filled with sly commentary about culture and the arts. The quartet of stories cover travel, art, politics, and cooking. Owen Wilson plays Anderson’s comic alter-ego, Herbsaint Salzerac, and he begins by delivering a city travelogue via his dry Midwest twang. He is wearing a beret and travels by bicycle. A split screen contrasts, in a rapid clip, locations and happenings in the old city of Ennui-sur-Blasé with the same sites in the 20th century. Howitzer accuses Salzerac of highlighting crime, murders, and prostitution. Salzerac rejects the suggestion; any changes would be inaccurate. Some of these descriptions are, in fact, based on articles by heralded New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. Here is a typical Mitchell passage from 1944 — describing New York City’s rats:
The biggest rat colonies in the city are found in rundown structures on or near the waterfront, especially in tenements, live-poultry markets, wholesale produce markets, slaughterhouses, warehouses, stables, and garages. They also turn up in more surprising places. Department of Health inspectors have found their claw and tail tracks in the basements of some of the best restaurants in the city.
Next, Tilda Swinton delivers an art lecture in a hideous gown, a faux officious manner, and false teeth. She is part of the “Berensen Lectures” (an overt reference to the art critic Bernard Berenson). Her lecture is entitled “The Concrete Masterpiece” and its subject is a savage murderer turned artist named Moses Rosenthaler, played with relish by Benicio del Toro. Tony Revolori (Zero in Grand Budapest) plays young Rosenthaler, who morphs into his older self when del Toro steps into the frame, puts his hand on Revolori’s shoulder, and replaces him. It is a sublimely theatrical moment.
Rosenthaler’s muse Simone, played by Léa Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Color), is also his prison guard and sometime lover. This sexual figure is uncharacteristic of any in previous Anderson outings: Simone models entirely in the nude (reminiscent of Emmanuelle Béart in Jacques Rivette’s 1991 La Belle Noiseuse). The result is that the painting becomes a phenomenon in the art world, its value championed by a verbose Adrien Brody, whose uncles — a nearly silent Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban — are confounded by the painting. Brody explains: “The desire must be created.” His goal is to sell a Rosenthaler masterpiece to art maven Upshur “Maw” Clampette, played by the incomparable Lois Smith. The catch: the painting is a fresco that’s permanently attached to a prison wall. All hell breaks loose as art patrons and convicts intermingle and chaos ensues.
This sly parody on the pretensions (and corruption) of art criticism gives way to the third story, which is on politics and poetry. This episode brings the French New Wave Movement (one of Anderson’s cinematic influences) into a satire of the Paris riots of 1968, when French youth took to the streets to reject autocratic, hierarchical, tradition-bound, commercial French culture. Anderson reduces the stakes considerably. Here the students are demanding the right of free access to the girls’ dormitory for all male students. Graffiti on a wall reads, “The children are grumpy.” Timothée Chalamet, his locks seemingly electrified, is Zeffirelli, a chess player and author of the student “Manifesto.” Also featuring his feisty lover, Juliette (played by Algerian actress Lyna Khoudri), the narrative combines revolution and eroticism in a way reminiscent of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film, The Dreamers.
Zeffirelli is also paired with Francis McDormand as Lucinda Krementz, his ghostwriter and the author of this French Dispatch piece. (The episode was obviously inspired by Mavis Gallant’s 1968 two-part New Yorker article “The Events in May: A Paris Notebook”). McDormand provides the insecure rebel with a no-nonsense mother figure. As for the comforting presence of the French New Wave, a theatrical set slides across the frame to reveal a café with dancers in the background, an allusion to the iconic dance scene in Godard’s 1964 film, Bande à part.
The final story is perhaps the one that drifts farthest from its alleged subject — cooking. An article, “Tastes and Smells,” is pitched by Roebuck Wright, who is introduced on a talk show hosted by Liev Schreiber. The author recounts the ensuing tale by way of his “perfect memory.” Jeffrey Wright sports a silk scarf and projects the effetely relaxed demeanor of James Baldwin with a touch of Gore Vidal (like Baldwin, Anderson is an ex-pat living in Paris). There’s plenty of looks at delicious food here until the yarn transforms into a slapstick crime caper featuring whatever flamboyant stylistic ammo Anderson has yet to fire off. This segment includes a colorful parade of French faces alongside a long list of cameos by international stars, including Saoirse Ronan, Rupert Friend, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Christoph Waltz, and Stephen Park as Chef Nescafier.
The wrap-up circles back to a look at the magazine’s staff members, who have previously been introduced through Angelica Houston’s narration at the top of the film. The group, including Owen Wilson, Elizabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman, Fisher Stevens, and Griffin Dunn, deliver an obituary for their recently deceased chief editor — over a birthday cake.
In her essay “Theater and Film,” Susan Sontag asserted that “the history of cinema is often treated as the history of its emancipation from the theatrical model.” A determined auteur, Anderson continues to reject that notion and his followers will be dazzled. Even those who find his visual antics superficial and thread-worn may enjoy the film’s expansive scale. Others working in the same theatrical mode include Sweden’s Roy Andersson and Canada’s Guy Maddin. Wes Anderson, because he is an independent filmmaker who can command major studio distribution, is able to rally marquee actors to lower their fees and become part of his personal film universe. Superhero spectacles, driven by CSI special effects, are popular because they help us escape our workaday lives via elemental mythologies. Anderson’s creations are equally fantastical, at times cartoonish, but his characters are human-sized archetypes, not costumed warriors able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. They are flesh and blood. For that reason, despite the flash of their glossy surfaces, Anderson’s films speak to our humanity rather than our illusions.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou alluded to the celebrity of Jacques Cousteau. The Royal Tenenbaums referred in part to The Magnificent Ambersons. The fascist undercurrents haunting The Grand Budapest Hotel were generated by the memoirs of Stephan Zweig. The French Dispatch‘s references to French and American culture supply another treasure hunt for aficionados. An anthology of New Yorker articles that inspired the film are available in a collection called An Editor’s Burial.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.