The French Dispatch has been reviewed outside of the New York Film Festival and will debut in theaters on October 22.
The French Dispatch is studded with stars and dotted with pastels and storybook design by Wes Anderson, though like many of his works – recent films like The Grand Hotel Budapest and The island of dogs in particular – he uses this whimsical approach as a cushion for heavier, more melancholy themes. The interconnected anthology follows a fictional American newspaper in an equally fictional small French town, but its various segments resemble real journalists and articles, mostly New York articles the director read as a teenager. The film is Anderson’s ode to print journalism of the past, and it arrives with its familiar visual flourishes (with a few new ones added along the way), which dramatize both the thought-provoking and compelling energy of the chronicle of the story as it unfolds.
In The French Dispatch, this story is an imaginary mix between America and France, the former being Anderson’s place of origin, and the latter a place one can easily imagine he would like to be from (if his early works inspired by the French New Wave are anything to go by). The story begins with a 1975 obituary, both for editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) and for the newspaper he founded 50 years earlier, the French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Howitzer Jr., based in part on New Yorker co-founder Harold Ross, was a stern man of few words – as shown in the film, since the obituary segment is used to frame the rest of the story in flashbacks – but Anderson portrays him with reverence and with solemn respect for a dying art. His article was devoted to bringing France and French culture to Kansas, the kind of world window through which you could imagine a young Anderson looking fervently, via the magazine articles that informed his following four stories.
Another short prologue follows the traveling writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) as he takes us on a tour of the lively but macabre nooks and crannies of the city with the ironic name of Ennui-sur-Blasé. It sounds like the idea of a teenager unhappy with French art (the town’s name means ‘boredom’ and it’s located on the ‘indifference’ river), but the film is anything but nihilistic or emotionally distant. , despite this ironic introduction. Sazerac is based on New York writer Joseph Mitchell, best known for his focus on New York’s darker and more disreputable elements, and Anderson’s character framing and writing seem to go back to (and some regards, criticize) unease. formed a perspective on the touching and distinctly human reality that Mitchell brought to the page.
This story sets the stage for the rest of the film in two main ways. The first is the way he uses Bill Murray’s Jr. Howitzer as a contrasting voice of reason and authority, controlling the picky (albeit self-aware) cynicism Anderson attributes to Sazerac, as if l editor was correcting teenage Anderson’s misconceptions about true nature. of Mitchell’s work. The second is the way he uses color. Sazerac’s city tour – an apparent dramatization of a fantastic article he wrote – involves a split-screen contrast between black-and-white images of Boredom’s past and contemporary color photographs. This simple and recognizable visual language continues throughout the film, with each section showcasing a full color framing device before its main story unfolds in black and white flashbacks, with a few exceptions. In each flashback, brief bursts of color envelop the screen, usually when a character lays their eyes on some memorable work of art, or something moving or alluring, as if those fleeting moments and sensations of him long ago lingered with them in the present. It is art as memory, an idea that the film ultimately embodies.
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This brief travelogue is followed by the first main segment, titled “The Concrete Masterpiece,” which features the memories of art critic JKL Berensen (Tilda Swinton) as she tells the story of the long-imprisoned abstract artist Moses Rosenthaler (Tony Revolori / Benicio del Toro), as well as Rosenthaler’s muse and prison guard, Simone (Léa Seydoux) and crazy-eyed art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), who tries to manipulate the painter from genius to create other masterpieces for sale. Cadazio is based on the real-life merchant Lord Duveen, and Anderson appears to take inspiration from SN Behrman’s six-part profile of The New Yorker on him, but the story is also very original, both in its dark and funny take on it. artistic inspiration and self-loathing and its frenzied portrayal of comedic action scenes. For some of them, Anderson and his longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman leave behind their cautious symmetry in favor of a looser, portable camera (which at one point they even tie into wheelchair at high speed), but in other cases the filmmakers lean on their established aesthetic to a delicious self-parody, forcing the actors to stand still as the camera moves sideways between huge paintings, each representing snapshots of chaos blurring the lines between “civil” society and the world behind the prison walls.
The story of this segment is a strange mix between French flourishes and American atrocities, such as a use with black humor of an electric chair, a device that has never been used in French prisons but remains an option for the United States. This hybrid approach to the past takes center stage in the second story, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” in which stage reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), based on The New Yorker’s Mavis Gallant, struggles with her place in shaping the story as it tells of a youth revolution led by warring student factions, one led by Juliette (Lyna Khoudri) and the other by Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet). Their names evoke the 1968 film Romeo and Juliet directed by Franco Zeffirelli, as if Anderson mixed real and cinematic stories; it paints a starry picture of the revolt, which reflects the real revolution of May 68 in France (which Gallant was covering at the time), but takes place in the vein of a cursed romance. However, Anderson also cuts through the naïve and noisy fabric of the story with brief allusions to a more solemn reality, albeit indirectly, through a stage production in the world – a technique he used to soften the edges of the story. war and destruction in movies like Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom, and which has become the self-reflective premise of the Grand Budapest Hotel, which filters the atrocities of WWII through multiple layers of fictional narratives.
However, when the third main segment unfolds, even Anderson seems aware that there are only a limited number of edges that can be sanded. In “The Police Commissioner’s Private Dining Room,” he reimagines queer author and black civil rights activist James Baldwin as food critic Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) – the character also takes on the writer’s role. culinary The New Yorker AJ Liebling – in a story that is among the best visual and thematic works of the filmmaker’s 25-year career. Wright, as interviewed on a television show in the 1970s, recalls his time in Boredom in the 1950s and his assignment to profile an Asian immigrant chief / police officer, Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park). However, while writing the story, he and Nescaffier are inadvertently drawn into a sprawling (mis) adventure when the son of Ennui Police Commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) is kidnapped by a mysterious criminal mastermind (Edward Norton).
The score, by Alexandre Desplat, becomes a playful clockwork and doesn’t even slow down for a second as Wright walks us through his near-perfect memories (he remembers events exactly as he wrote them, rather than as he saw them. ). At one point, Anderson and Yeoman use a circular tracking shot with subtle hints of inward zooming to capture the intoxicating culinary bliss brought about by Nescaffier’s famous food – away from their usual linear camera movements, which capture the characters. from a distance. It’s as if they’re letting go of some of their structured restraint. This segment happens to shine the most when it feels distinctly of a non-Anderson nature. His characteristic playfulness is sometimes interrupted by harsh and unsettling moments as silent and unspoken threats begin to hover over Wright’s shoulder – for example, the specter of incarceration, which is of particular importance to him in as a black man in a predominantly white and homosexual setting. man at a time when such things were punishable in many western countries. In these moments, Anderson and Yeoman forgo their usual wide angles and deep focus. Their rare use of a long lens not only blurs highly detailed backgrounds, but above all forces us to focus on Wright’s fears and the silent ways in which his humanity is threatened.
This segment is not lacking in whimsy, of course. Its contrasts between explosive violence and staging of pop-up children’s books are hilarious on their own, and it features even Anderson’s most overt and fun homage to The New Yorker: a long animated chase scene. handwritten in the style of one of the magazine’s signatures. illustrations. But what makes this story feel whole is how its cartoonish madness is ultimately rooted in a true story of strangers like Wright and Nescaffier, whose brief but meaningful interactions present a complicated melancholy, hinting at a search. seemingly endless idyllic affiliation in different parts of the world (Baldwin, who has spoken at length about American racism, also spent several years in Paris).
Perhaps more than anything in Anderson’s filmography, “The Police Commissioner’s Private Dining Room” seems to put his cinematic fixations into words (or rather, pictures). He portrays, in an incisive manner, how his sets are inspired not by real places, but by places as they exist in the cinematic imagination, as if he were on an endless quest, in constant search of a non-existent reality that he has no choice but to create for himself. His fairy tale France is influenced by a litany of French filmmakers, and it comes gift-wrapped in its familiar style. . It feels larger and more stage-like, with more detail and humanity hiding around every man-made corner.
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