• Jocelyn

'The French Dispatch' Review

Going out to see a Wes Anderson film in theaters is a wholly delightful, full-body experience. It is a special event one prepares for, looks forward to, and is, ultimately, taken away by. Anderson’s style is distinctly recognizable at this point, with the symmetrical 90° panning, muted yet vibrant color palettes, rapid-fire dialogue, French literary quirkiness, and much more. Without fail, he delivers the same stylistic elements and tropes, yet a lot of us can’t seem to get enough.

In his new film, The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson continues his parade of “quirky world comedies,” this time framed by a collection of three stories published in the fictional French Dispatch magazine after the death of its founder Arthur Howitzer Jr. (based on The New Yorker founder Harold Ross). The premise for this film is that it’s “a love letter to journalists,” and it certainly accomplishes this, while also managing to pay homage to the other artists and filmmakers that inspired this film. Before the first of the three feature stories, we are introduced to the town of Ennui by the cycling reporter Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), and see how so much and so little has changed in the town over time. What’s interesting but unaddressed here is how the word “ennui” literally means a feeling of listlessness and boredom, a sensation that’s in stark contrast to the eccentricity of the stories that play out in Ennui over a decade. We are then introduced to the first story, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” narrated by an art lecturer J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) who carries on the spirit of the real life Rosamund Bernier, and depicts the life of imprisoned artist Moses Rosenthal (Benicio del Toro) and his guard-cum-muse Simone (Léa Seydoux). The pretentious attitude of the art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) and his transactional relationship with Rosenthal and his supposedly genius art satirizes the era of avant-garde art in the 60’s, as seen in Emile de Antonio’s documentary Painters Painting (1973).

Rosenthal is depicted as the archetypal uninspired and tortured artist, his despair exacerbated after he learns that his feelings for Simone are unreciprocated. There is a spirit of nihilistic boredom in Rosenthal that compels him to paint, which connects to the looming idea of ennui in the film. In this, there is a deep similarity between the character of Rosenthal and the character of Boudu in one of the films that inspired Anderson: Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932).

It is not just in their disheveled and bearded look, but also in their animalistic demeanors and satiric, nihilistic perspectives on their lives. And the decision to have Rosenthal be released on probation after stopping a riot is not only reminiscent of Boudou running away from the shackles of marriage, but incites a feeling of love and hope for the tortured artists of the past and today.

The second story, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” tells a Godardian tale of student revolutionary activists which leads up to the “Chessboard Revolution” where activist Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) competes against the bourgeoisie elite of the city in a seemingly life-or-death game of chess. At the center of it all is reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), who crosses the line of “journalistic integrity” as she sleeps with Zeffirelli and assists in the writing of his manifesto. What is special about this segment here is how much Anderson plays upon Jean-Luc Godard’s frequent portrayal of student communists and Marxists as idealists beset by unceasing internal conflict, while also carrying on the spirit of Masculin Feminin (1966) and La Chinoise (1967) as a love letter of sorts to Godard. There is a brief needle drop in the cafe scene of Chantal Goya’s “Tu m’as trop menti” (which originated in Masculin Feminin), and Zeffirelli bears a strong resemblance to Jean-Pierre Léaud’s characters in both Godard films, in which he also plays a Marxist student.

The sudden yet breathtaking diversion from the muted color palettes can also be seen as Zeffirelli and his comrade/lover Juliette (Lyna Khoudri) are riding back to the dormitories at night. This brief montage playfully alludes to the saturated neon world of Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart (1981), as both pairs of lovers embrace intimately in the dim, violet night.

For a brief moment you can see a group of sex workers hanging out smoking cigarettes, allusive to the characters in Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962) and Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce (1963). The segment builds on its predecessors and inspirations, revitalizing the spirit of Marxism (if not clarifying its specifics) and calls into question the balance between politics and love.

The third and final story, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” is told from the perspective of reporter Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) as we see him navigate a dinner with the Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric) and the subsequent kidnapping of his son, Gigi (Winston Ait Hellal).

Based on famed writer James Baldwin, Wright is imbued with his stoic demeanor and calculated manner of speaking, and delivers a playful remark on poor navigation abilities as a homosexual. Here the stakes rise and the evocative emotions start to come into play as we see multiple scenes of overwhelming tenderness, namely the reunification between the Commissaire and Gigi, as well as the haunting words uttered by the chef Nescaffier (Steven Park) to Wright after having poisoned the kidnappers and himself. These moments render a conclusive sense of mortality on the brink of life-and-death, and successfully close in spectacular fashion.

What makes The French Dispatch so cohesive and accessible to both the casual and non-casual moviegoer (despite its structure) is its ability to craft a whimsical and easygoing narrative that remains grounded in emotion and stays true to Anderson’s style, while also building on the great films that inspired it. Each act ends with a hopeful (if not happy) conclusion, and never seems to tie things up on a bad and/or ambiguous note. That being said, if you are like me, a literary nerd, I implore you: go see this film. If you aren’t, well, go see it anyways.