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- Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival
If The French Dispatch isn’t the best Wes Anderson film, it’s certainly the most Wes Anderson film, arguably the purest distillation of his singular aesthetics, storytelling and predilections.
It’s a valentine both to The New Yorker magazine – especially its trailblazing mid-20th century cosmopolitan writers like A.J. Liebling, Mavis Gallant and James Baldwin – and to the cinema and culture of his adopted homeland France, the entire film set in the fantasy town of Ennui-Sur-Blasé. So then: iconoclastic American expats trying to conjure up and relay a wider world with uncompromising style. La République de Wes, c’est lui.
It’s also his densest, most disorientating concoction. Fashioned as if we’re flicking through the pages of the titular publication, an offshoot of fictional American newspaper The Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, this five-part anthology film comprises “an Obituary, a Travel Guide and Three Features”. The death is that of the Dispatch’s founder and editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray); our man-about-town, beret-sporting cyclist Owen Wilson, outlines Ennui’s colourful history; and the three main tales are delivered by a trio of star reporters (Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright), detailing an imprisoned painter’s dubious art dealings, a student uprising and the kidnapping of the police commissioner’s son respectively.
Each story is self-contained (bar the Obituary’s de facto prologue and epilogue), unified only by Anderson’s patented style. The symmetrical compositions, precise camera moves and self-consciously theatrical sets would all fit effortlessly into the endless online video essays and supercuts he inspires. The obsessive level of period design detail, huge, ever-rotating cast, onscreen typography and shifts between creamy monochrome and candy-hued colour is, at times, sheer visual overload: a gourmet meal where the lavish courses just keep on coming.
As a result, it’s harder than ever to look past, or even fully take in, the bounteous surface pleasures and invest in characters on an emotional level. Anderson protagonists habitually speak with those trademark deadpan, emotionally obtuse line readings. It frequently demands a feature-length investment to come to know, and feel for, the Tenenbaum kids, Steve Zissou or the emotionally stunted Darjeeling Limited siblings. Even The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Russian doll-nested timeframes coalesce into a whole. Here the pages of the Dispatch’s discreet sections keep turning, whether you’re ready or not.
It would be churlish, though, not to acknowledge the staggering creativity on display and the manifest joie de vivre with which it’s been assembled. Droll Jacques Tati and French New Wave homages, an animated car pursuit scene (Angoulême, where the film was shot, is France’s comic-book capital), a 60s chanson tribute – by Jarvis Cocker, no less – and the beautifully mocked-up French Dispatch cover artworks are all tailored with expert craft and loving care. Meanwhile the jaunty, catchy Alexandre Desplat score helps suture each Anderson miniature into a larger whole.
Those who accuse Wes of mere whimsy can certainly advance their case here. Few of even Anderson’s hardcore fans would champion his movies as social commentary and that’s evident here too. The ’68 student protest-inspired section led by Timothée Chalamet’s precocious revolutionary Zeffirelli treats the whole era’s insurrection as a childish game for “grognons”, or “grumps”. Even a riot blockade has a cute trapdoor exit – perhaps Anderson’s escape from real political engagement.
However, in the film’s best scenes you can see him reaching for, and attaining, something more. Jeffrey Wright’s wonderful James Baldwin-esque reporter is thrown in jail for his sexuality then bailed out by Howitzer, the editor, who gives him a chance of personal and professional freedom of expression. Wright later meets legendary Asian emigré chef Nescaffier (Stephen Park) and they bond over being foreigners in exile, “missing something”. Poignant moments like this feel like Anderson is evoking a deeper, more personal, even contemporary resonance than just a pastiche tribute to great journalists of the past.
Howitzer’s mantra is “just try to make it sound like you wrote it on purpose,” and he indulges his writers in ways most of us journalists can only dream of. But he also stipulates in his will that The French Dispatch cease publication upon his death. Everything in a Wes Anderson film happens on purpose. Our time is finite. How do we spend it? His loyal collaborators – every key actor he’s ever cast seems to feature here, even if, like Jason Schwartzman or Saoirse Ronan, for mere seconds onscreen – repeatedly sign up for the unique, playful experience on offer. In the meantime, you probably know by now whether you’ll be enchanted or enervated by dispatches from Wes Anderson World. Stop the presses.
Film of the week: Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson’s absurdist canine caper
By Kim Newman
Film of the week: The Grand Budapest Hotel
By Philip Kemp
Cannes 2012: Fleeting pleasures – Moonrise Kingdom
By Nick James
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Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy