The French Dispatch is Wes Anderson’s homage to magazine journalism. It demands the viewer’s absolute attention, just like reading a long-form article.
Razor-sharp Wodehousian humour meets habitual visual relish in The French Dispatch, the new Wes Anderson film that brings the idiosyncratic tale of a fastidious editor and his dogged ways of magazine production that favours (only) the writers, even at the cost of other employees. It is Anderson’s admiring tribute to magazine production, each of its sections comes alive on screen forming a wholesome package of magazine style feature-stories.
The layout and typography of the eponymous magazine suggests the very style of The New Yorker, the most admired magazine in the world. Little surprise, because Bill Murray’s Arthur Howitzer Jr is based on Harold Ross, the co-founder of The New Yorker.
Premiering halfway through the Cannes festival in the competition section, Anderson’s abidingly delightful comedy drama about a lifestyle supplement magazine set in a provincial French town boasts of a big-ticket ensemble cast. Originally scheduled to premiere last year at Cannes, and postponed due to the pandemic, the film arrived a year late, yet remained the most anticipated amid the crowded festival schedule. In what serves as a reminder that the pandemic is still an ongoing event, Léa Seydoux, who has a significant role, skipped the festival after having tested positive for COVID-19, days earlier.
Murray plays the no-nonsense editor who ferociously protects the interests of his writers. Instead of cutting their pieces down to length, he is of the habit of telling his writers whose work he does not want to compromise: “Just try and make it sound like you wrote it on purpose.” He relies on his roster of expat American journalists to fill the pages of his magazine.
In the opening scene at an editorial meeting room, with mustard yellow walls where his copy editor, played by a charmingly morose Elisabeth Moss, suggests they may have to do away with a piece or two for the sake of the magazine’s length, Howitzer Jr refuses to cut down their pieces and fires the office assistant who suggests the deadline for printing is fast approaching.
From then on, as each section – travel, arts, politics, tastes & smells etc – plays out as its own little story, visually rich in typical Wes Anderson style, where he creates universes within little universes filled with eccentric characters and unforgettable storylines, culminating in an obituary section for the end pages.
The French Dispatch unspools like a bunch of cotton yarns bursting with colours — sometimes even monochromatically — filling the frame with clever writing, unparalleled cinematic imagination, and visual sumptuousness.
The brief first section features a travel column by a reporter (Owen Wilson), who takes his readers through Ennui on his bicycle. Split-screen visuals and socio-political commentary about streetwalkers and gigolos on the streets and rats in the tunnels mark the beginning section.
Perhaps the most memorable and the longest of the features sections is The Concrete Masterpiece, in which Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), a convicted criminal, takes up painting in prison using guard Simone (Léa Seydoux), as his nude model. It sparks the interest of art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) who is also in the same prison for tax evasion charges. The whole episode is narrated by the writer JKL Berensen (Tilda Swinton), in the form of an arts lecture, whose burnt orange wig and gaudy dress match with her condescension for Rosenthaler’s supposed artistic talents.
In the next piece Revisions to a Manifesto, journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), writes about student protests in France while trying hard to stoically resist and ultimately giving in to the charms of the narcissistic student Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet). Now, who would have thought the pairing of McDormand and Chalamet would make for such sparkling viewing? “I feel shy about my new muscles,” Chalamet says all the while McDormand insisting she needs to maintain journalistic integrity.
Perhaps the most ingenious of the pieces The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner, written by Roebuck Wright, is blended with animation that tells the tale of the kidnapping of a police commissioner’s son. Anderson credits James Baldwin in the end credits, so it is fair to assume Wright, played by Jeffrey Wright, is designed after Baldwin himself.
The French Dispatch is set in a southwestern French town of Angoulême — called Ennui-sur-Blasé in the film — but as with any Anderson movie, much of it takes place indoor in meticulously built inventive sets. Adam Stockhausen’s production design, combined with Robert Yeoman’s photography that switches from colour to monochrome to back again, are joys to behold. In one black-and-white scene, locked in a room with wooden slits to view, the kidnapped Commissioner’s son asks showgirl Saoirse Ronan if her eyes are blue. She lowers herself to the slit, and the scene changes to colour revealing the blue of Ronan’s eyes.
Written by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman, The French Dispatch is filled with numerous such joyous moments that celebrate a curious marriage of lifestyle journalism with cinematic brilliance. In a way that it is Anderson’s homage to magazine journalism, it is also sophisticated and demands the viewer’s absolute attention, just like reading a long-form article.
Rating: * * * 1/5
This article was first published when the film premiered at Cannes Film Festival 2021. It is now streaming on Disney+Hostar.
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