Synopsis: Wes Anderson liberally applies his own gonzo style to stories set in France. (Streaming on Amazon)
Professional filmmaker and certified imp Wes Anderson keeps us on our toes with The French Dispatch, serving us the cinematic equivalent of molecular gastronomy. W.A. employs standard movie craftwork with the bizarre ideations brewing in his mind.
Just as you’d be advised to reconsider that big spoonful of sweet-looking moon-white froth (it’s bitter with horseradish), don’t laugh too long at a clever turn of phrase (it’s issuer will soon be murdered). Likewise, that clump of caviar will unexpectantly melt in your mouth, releasing the pure essence of late-season kumquat. And when one of Mr. Anderson’s oeuvres gets too chilly, just one slice of a scene exudes some human warmth. Afterall, he’s not just an auteur, but a human being. We’re pretty sure, anyway.
The French Dispatch takes place in a particular France of the mid-Twentieth Century, in Ennui-sur-Blasé. The parochial town, full of nostalgic charm and a soupçon of seediness, was created in Angoulême in southwestern France.
The movie’s conceit is that the well-heeled publisher of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun has given his continental son a chance to stay in France by publishing the French Dispatch for the paper; a chance for the Plains people of America to brush against the savoir faire of the French in all manner of cultural and human interest stories. Anderson reportedly based the journalists on a number of writers in the heralded literary magazine, The New Yorker.
One of Anderson’s regulars, Owen Wilson, appears onscreen and on-bike as Herbsaint Sazerac, who opens the film with a tour through Ennui-Sur-Blasé in “The Cycling Reporter” or “Tour à la Owen Wilson.” He narrates with enthusiasm as he cycles through the byways of the town, exposing its understated charms and sketchy environs. As per usual, he is filmdom’s goofy California man. I only wish the director had allowed him at least one laidback O, wow.
The French Dispatch’s three vignettes are presented as a sort of ode to the magazine’s longtime editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr., played by a droll Bill Murray. Anderson’s regular players pretty much play the roles they have been assigned when they entered his conservatory universe. Yes, of course you will be seeing Tilda Swinton being officious.
Vignette #1… “The Concrete Masterpiece” or “Wes Anderson’s Male Gaze.” Benicio Del Toro is a painter who has been imprisoned for many years for the murder of two men at a bar. He says it was an accident, but a parole board member points out that systemic dismemberment of victims is not a quick slip of the finger. The prison rules must be quite lax, because his model and muse is a prison guard, Simone (Léa Seydoux). Ms. Seydoux has said that she didn’t know that many of her scenes would be in the nude, as Mr. Anderson is shy and only showed her some rough sketch storyboards. Apparently, the director overcame his shyness to film her many nude scenes — she does appear quite muse-ish. So, is this maniac a great painter or the beneficiary of cunning marketing by his agent?
Vignette #2… ” Revisions to a Manifesto” or ” Protesting Timmee.” Using the 1968 Paris Student Protests as a platform, the little town has its own uprising with Timothée Chalamet portraying Zeffirelli, an “attractive wastrel” and the leader of the Chessboard Revolution which announces its intention of turning campus into a “free borderless utopian society.” It starts out as a demand for dormitory co-ed sleepovers; not quite as noble as 1968’s Prague Spring in which young people in support of democratization stared down Soviet invaders in tanks.* Perhaps what they needed was a manifesto.
In between donning a gasmask and confronting the gendarmes, Timmee soaks in a hot bath tub, writing his manifesto. Enter Frances McDormand as Lucinda Krementz, a reporter who compromises her “journalistic neutrality” to aid Timmee in refining his ideas in an appendix. She informs him that: This isn’t the first manifesto I’ve edited. Not surprisingly, the young monsieur loses interest in the document as he attends to sex, chess and cafe hopping.
Vignette #3… “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” or ” A Bad Day for Gigi.” Who could’ve guessed that there would be culinary delights at the police station? Then again, this is gastronomic giant La France, so I will go with it. This is a story within a story — so Christopher Nolan-esque! Jeffrey Wright as fictionally renowned journalist Roebuck Wright (Wes has such fun with people & place names, non? My fave name is Mitch-Mitch) is being interviewed on a 1970’s talk show where he recounts some of his most popular stories. He is blessed with a perfect “typographic memory.” When the interviewer asks if he can pick up anytime, anywhere where he has mentally “bookmarked” a piece, he quickly replies: Of course, you silly goose.
The interviewee launches into a recitation of his article on what starts as the story of a much-appreciated invitation to dine with the town’s police commissioner/ Le Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric) at his offices. He has a lieutenant, Msr. Nescaffier (Steve Park) who serves as his avant garde chef. Besides his work duties, the commissioner is also the attentive father of Gigi (Winsen Ait Hellal), a young boy who has been schooled at the police offices and possesses preternatural investigative abilities. His first words were said to be in morse code.
Mon Dieu! Fate intervenes–in this case criminals– to put the dinner on the back burner when Gigi is discovered to be in danger and unlocatable. Be ready for some money-saving car chases all over the town thanks to an action-packed animated sequence. I suppose, as the years go by and Wes Anderson adds new actors to his conservatory, it gets expensive paying everyone.
Alors, The French Dispatch is amusant here and there, but is not one of Anderson’s supérieur works. A few semi-engaging short films don’t add up to an involving feature film experience.
*The Czech effort to form their own government in the Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet Troops. However, in 1989 self-determination and democracy were ushered in what became known as the Velvet Revolution, a non-violent transfer of power when the Russians backed out of Czech affairs.
P.S. Wes Anderson’s best flick? The Grand Budapest Hotel featuring a fantastic Ralph Fiennes and a cameo by Owen Wilson.
P.P.S. Creepy and out-of-touch bit of dialogue where Tilda Swinton’s character gives a jokey account of when she was nearly sexually assaulted.