Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Saying “Oui!” to “The French Dispatch”

It doesn’t pay to try to find deep meaning in a Wes Anderson movie. Anderson leaves it to other filmmakers to confront the world’s great issues.  For himself, he’s content to stake out a time and place, add an accumulation of disparate personality types, then infuse everything with a powerful sense of whimsy, heightened by nostalgia for the long-ago and far-away.  I took great pleasure in 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which captured the changing fortunes of a legendary (and of course imaginary) East European hostelry as it moved from periods of peace through years of war. Anderson’s new film, The French Dispatch, seems made of slighter stuff, but it still displays Anderson’s ability to charm, as well as his success at working with a brilliant ensemble cast. Among the glittering hordes who people The French Dispatch are some of screendom’s finest. Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Benicio Del Toro,  Adrien Brody,  William Dafoe, and especially Léa Seydoux are among those on full display. Bob Balaban and an unrecognizable Henry Winkler show up as aged uncles. Elisabeth Moss flits by, Saoirse Ronan briefly plays a hooker, and Anjelica Huston does voice-over narration  At times it seems you needed to have an Oscar nomination (or an Emmy or at least a César) to join this jolly cast.

 Is there a story? Well, sort of. The focus of the film is a literary supplement that’s published as an odd-ball addition to the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, because the publisher’s offspring is determined to spend his adult life in France. The picturesque French city of Angoulême stands in for the magazine’s home turf, the highly imaginary town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The heart of the film is three eccentric stories (focusing on true French specialties: art, politics, and cuisine) being researched by Dispatch staffers, all of them American-born Francophiles. Those viewers who are fans of The New Yorker magazine can see how Anderson has wittily woven its history and stylistic quirks into his film. (The New York Times rave review does a splendid job of pointing out the essential parallels, with much reference to the literary greats being parodied on-screen.) 

 What struck me, though, is how a film ostensibly about the life and times of a cadre of journalists is as much about pictures as it is about the power of words. Visuals, and not just word-pictures, are an essential part of Anderson’s style. One of his three chief stories, that in which Del Toro plays a madman released from bondage when the world discovers his talent for contemporary art, of course has a strong visual element—especially as we see Seydoux evolve into his very naked muse. And the second story, in which crusading reporter Frances McDormand finds herself both politically and sexually moved by student radical Timothée Chalamet, contains priceless images of the two cozily bedded down.

 But beyond all this, a key part of Anderson’s stylistics is his delight in cinema as a medium. He loads his frame with every sort of screen gimmick he can get away with: title cards, sudden shifts from color into black & white, unusual camera angles, silent-movie tricks. I see nothing in his biography that suggests a love for stagecraft as well as movies, but the batimênts and byways of Ennui-sur-Blasé are frequently filmed from a distance, as if they were not real locales but rather stage sets constructed out of cardboard and fabric for the spectator’s amusement.

 Not every viewer will fall under Anderson’s spell. The review that appeared in the L.A. Times was particularly harsh. But me? I say “Oui!” 


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