Saturday, October 30, 2021


The French Dispatch is an impeccable handcrafted artifice somehow turning into the purest sincerity at the same time. It is, in other words, a Wes Anderson film. He’s a filmmaker who can make intricate dollhouse constructions over the darkest of melancholies. He’s one of our great appreciators of style and tone, able to take a gleaming picture of theatrical techniques and literary flourishes, pack it dense with allusions and yet give it surface pleasures all its own. He’s best at building out little pocket worlds—an eccentric wealthy New York family in The Royal Tenenbaums, a brotherly train tour of India in The Darjeeling Limited, a tiny New England island community in Moonrise Kingdom, or, his best, the towering, luxurious European mountain getaway in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Within he can indulge his eye for design—a blend of vintage mid-century aesthetics informed by a well-curated artistic intellect—while building up beautiful sadness and delightful serendipities. There’s no wonder the astonishing emotional power he can build—whether a gentle reconciliation between father and child, or a bittersweet acknowledgement of encroaching fascism bringing a golden age to a close—can catch viewers by surprise, if they can see it at all, beneath his dazzling, droll surface precision.

His latest takes as its conceit the last issue of a fictional magazine, The French Dispatch, upon the death of its founder, editor, and chief benefactor. The old man (Bill Murray) willed it so. One gets the sense it wouldn’t have the money to keep going without him. He expired near the end of editing the latest volume of what we’re told is an outgrowth of a weekend supplement for his late father’s Kansas-based newspaper that became, over the course of fifty years, its own periodical run out of storybook-perfect, snow-globe-pretty Ennui, France (the sly Francophilia is from the heart). It was a haven for the sort of literary journalists and essayists that flourished in the early to mid twentieth century. (The first card of the end credits lists, in tribute, several who serve as inspirations for Anderson’s inventions, from E.B. White and Lillian Ross to A.J. Liebling and James Baldwin.) The film becomes an amusing, eclectic mixture of that era’s art, music, design, and politics run through the typical Andersonian styles. But above all it is driven by evoking long, discursive, artfully poetic journalistic inquiries, some terse typewriter clatter, others honeyed descriptive detail. This kind of magazine writing has been practically driven extinct, save a few New Yorker-style holdouts, over the last few decades of rapacious hedge fund buyouts and relentless internet erosion of readership and attention.

It’s this sense of a bygone era that animates the movie’s wistfulness. As it begins with a death, it feels all the more like an end of that era. The movie is set in 1975, a time when a magazine like this still seemed almost the norm. Anderson begins with the editor’s obituary, and then dramatizes the four articles that make up the farewell publication. Each begins with the title positioned in crisp type, and is greeted with lovely pastiche prose that sounds just right for the period and style. They’re narrated by the journalists—a laid-back observational man-about-town (Owen Wilson), a snooty and secretly wild art expert (Tilda Swinton), a persnickety quasi-radical researcher too close to her subjects (Francis McDormand), and a refined, poetic appreciator of appetites (Jeffrey Wright). Each section is thus framed as a nesting doll—authors recounting stories within their essayistic impressions to interlocutors in faded color stock, bursting into beautiful black-and-white reportage that still further blooms into vivd color at key moments of artistic transcendence.

Thus these dispatches proceed as a collection of lovely little short stories told in a collage of filmmaking techniques. They mix film stocks and aspect ratios, split-screen juxtapositions, vigorous intuitive montage, miniatures, rear projection, slide-away stage walls, freeze frames made by actors standing still, stop-motion and hand-drawn animation. It’s a Whitman’s sampler box of a film: a sturdy, segmented container with a place for each bite-size bit of everything Anderson can do, every little nugget crafted for distinct aesthetic appeals and bittersweet surprises bursting when bit into and chewed over. The resulting stories are all in their own ways about the oddities of human experience and the dilemmas in which eccentrics and artists can find themselves. They’re over-brimmed with petty disappointments, deep wells of sadness, and grand attempts at connection outside oneself. First is a bicycle tour through the town of Ennui. The next takes us to the world of a prisoner (Benicio del Toro) painting his muse, a beautiful guard (Léa Seydoux). An art dealer (Adrian Brody) wants to invest. The next has a college activist (Timothée Chalamet) who wants to change the world, or maybe just find a lover, as he’s groping toward a manifesto. Then we get the tale of a taste test in a police kitchen (run by chef Steve Park and cop Mathieu Amalric) interrupted by an urgent kidnapping investigation. (That one gives new meaning to the term pot-boiler, eh?) The stories never quite go the way you’d think, and take detours into the silly, the tragic, and the profound, sometimes even all at once. Each ends back in the editor’s office as he mulls over some suggestions. His favorite is one all good English teachers should adopt: “Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.”

That’s what Anderson does, too. He makes movies with rigorous structure and visual whimsy, together drawing out his whip-smart dry dialogue, textured thematic concerns, and layered images with clear intentionality and a crystal clear unity of form and purpose. This latest is deceptively light, the stories tossed off and slighter than the richness of his character work in other films. But as it draws to a close, it has a cumulative effect. Throughout, we see characters engaged in all kinds of artistic pursuits—painting, cooking, philosophizing, writing—and appreciations—viewing, eating, buying, reading. We see madness in pursuit of new tastes and new visions, and we see the comfort of finding those who understand you through your ideas, your perspective, your words. In these ways, the segments speak to each other, and build to a lovely epilogue that ties the larger portrait together. It’s about art’s capacity to draw us outwards and upwards toward the beautiful, no matter how fleeting. And it’s the story of a man through the work he shepherded—a true editor’s funeral. And it’s a filmmaker at the height of his powers, in total control over his techniques. One can sit and marvel: look at it go. In the list of artistic pursuits it demonstrates and venerates, it makes sure filmmaking is always one of them.

No comments:

Post a Comment