The French Dispatch (2021)
Words by May Garland
The French Dispatch (2021)
The ‘love letter to journalism’, The French Dispatch takes you through a series of articles about an incarcerated painter, political radicals falling in love, and a culinary crime story. Set in France, the story feels nostalgic like a retro copy of The New Yorker. Wes Anderson transported me from my couch in dreary England to Ennui, as if I were flicking through the pages of a vibrant magazine, my fingers covered in crumbs from my breakfast croissant while I sip from a cup of café au lait.
Watching The French Dispatch is like entering a patisserie and being overwhelmed by the indulgent and delectable pastries on display. Anderson’s movies never fail to give you a visually-rich experience, dense with references and hidden meanings. The film warrants another watch to sample more of the tasty treats - or rather, to figure out what the heck is going on…
Filmed mostly in the small city of Angoulême, in southwestern France, this bric-a-brac anthology has the feel of other Wes Anderson classics like Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film is a continuation of his literary-esque style, but I was reminded of the French flair of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of Amélie, in his cinematography. Vintage scenes of black and white transform into palettes of pastel shades, while the English narration is peppered with excerpts of French dialogue, celebrating the marriage of these two cultures.
The series of vignettes begins with a piece on travel. While you are whisked through the cobbled streets of Ennui-Sur-Blasé (which roughly translates to jaded-on-boredom), Anderson masterfully inverts the mundane of local life and the business of newspapers into gripping stories filled with humour, drama, and a touch of melancholy. Owen Wilson, playing Herbsaint Sazerac, is our beret-wearing travel guide providing the whistle-stop tour of the town on his bicycle. A regular in Wes Anderson’s films, the American star of Midnight in Paris seems at home in this stylish French world.
Not leaving us to catch our breath, Anderson uses the sound of Alexandre Desplat’s curious score or the enthusiastic click-clack of a typewriter to whisk us onto the next page. The first feature article covers an imprisoned and clinically insane, abstract artist (Benicio del Toro) who is tortured by his art yet commodified for his genius by the cunning collector, Léa Seydoux (Adrien Brody). Tilda Swinton plays the fabulous and slightly salacious arts correspondent, JKL Berensen detailing the troubled life of the artist. Whilst the story has a sadness to it, you can’t help but find Anderson’s parody of the modern art world comical.
Next, we turn the page to a group of rebellious teens experiencing a political awakening and hunger for justice, which is undercut by their youthful naivety. My heart skipped a beat when I saw Timothée Chalamet appear on my screen as the wild-haired, chess-playing Zeffirelli, his character was less the Call Me By Your Name heartthrob and more an insecure student sensitive about his revolutionary manifesto and “new muscles”. The events in ‘Revisions To A Manifesto’ were inspired by the May 1968 events in Paris where student protests and civil unrest led to The French New Wave movement that shut down the country. “A treatise on the touching narcissism of the young” as the reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) puts it. “Seeking absolute freedom, whatever the cost.” Anderson expertly explores themes of youth, political radicalism and the illusion of journalistic neutrality, which reporter Krementz reveals does not exist when she sleeps with Zeffirelli and edits his manifesto.
The final feature appears as a food review turned thrilling heist. This segment contrasts the mouth-watering six-course meal, narrated by Jeffrey Wright, with a sudden injection of absurdity when the Police Commissioner’s son is kidnapped. Under normal circumstances, I may have felt concerned for the boy; yet, Anderson’s comical and retro cinematic technique, combined with the chase outlined in animation as the publication plunges into its comic strip section, surprises me out of my sympathy. All is saved by the culinary skills of the chef and by the end of this high-paced and confusing sequence of events, I found myself both exhausted and hungry!
After being thoroughly entertained and overwhelmed by the exquisitely shot and complex articles, the film drew to a close with a sombre epilogue (spoiler alert) brought on by the death of the editor Arthur Howitzer Jr., played by Bill Murray. Based on The New Yorker’s co-founder Harold Ross, Arthur instructs in his will that the publication shall die with him. Whilst there was an element of sadness brought with the closing of the last issue and the hinted death of journalistic artistry, I remembered the sign above the editor-in-chief’s door stating “no crying” and I quickly wiped away my tears.