' ' Cinema Romantico: The French Dispatch

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The French Dispatch

Early in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” we see a close-up of a serving tray as it gradually acquires drinks, various aperitifs, an absinthe, even a cola, all rendered in sepia tones, like a vintage Bon Appétit cover from the 1960s. The tray will soon be carried up several flights of stairs to the offices of the eponymous fictional New Yorker-ish literary magazine in the make believe Ennui-sur-Blasé, France, but this image really exists as an emblem of Anderson gathering all the tools in his aesthetic toolbox. Throughout the ensuing hour and forty-eight minutes you see it all: different aspect ratios, color and monochrome, even animation, relentlessly playful costume and set design, not to mention hyper-specific story details, like inventing an entire mode of cuisine. It has already become de rigueur for critics to deem “The French Dispatch” as the most Wes Anderson-y Wes Anderson movie, and that is not untrue, filled to bursting with his preferred themes and motifs, narratively and visually, so chock full it might well require two viewings to truly imbibe it all. This is not, however, an illustration of the age-old, oft-unwarranted accusation that Anderson is all style, no substance. Far from it. You might not know it to view it, given the lack of a character as true Anderson stand-in, a la “Rushmore’s” Max Fischer or “The Grand Budapest Hotel’s” Gustave H., but “The French Dispatch” is Anderson’s most personal work yet, the style intrinsically merging with the substance to become a manifestation of art as individual expression. 

Though we see editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) and his staff hash out The French Dispatch’s latest issue, Anderson is less interested in presenting the nuts and bolts of publication than he is in bringing a magazine issue to life. He does this not just by creating an anthology film but by structuring his anthology like a magazine, with a Talk of the Town-ish prologue and a culminating obituary sandwiched around three feature stories. And though these stories feature their writers in one form or another recounting their creations, the articles essentially emerge from the pages to become the movie, as if a New Yorker lying in your lap has been beamed up to the big screen. And even if the stories within are fictitious, this fiction feels as true to Harold Ross and William Shawn’s periodical as any inspired by adaptation, an animated sequence like a New Yorker cover as Loony Tune and nearly every Adrien Brody line finishing with a comic aside that might as well be a droll parenthetical. 

As is typical with Anderson, there is more than a whiff of nostalgia, though it is never so simple or saccharine. In his previous “Grand Budapest Hotel”, his main character lamented a world on its way out, if not already gone, though concluding developments raised the question of whether that world ever really existed to begin with. And though by setting “The French Dispatch” in the 1960s, Anderson is referencing a time gone by, when magazine writers could be reimbursed for holing up at an expensive, exotic resort to write their stories and editors had more clout than venture capitalists, he nevertheless imbues a love of journalism, the written word, and art in general that is tantamount to a rallying cry for its continued preservation. Indeed, the introductory travelogue, in which Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), shows us “a day in the life of Ennui over 250 years”, evokes the old Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr observation that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The first feature, “The Concrete Masterpiece”, is spiritually a three-hander about an artist, his muse, and his benefactor in which an art dealer, Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody), turns Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), serving a prison sentence for murder, into a worldwide sensation after buying the inmate’s nude portrait of prison officer Simone (Léa Seydoux). In reproving himself as apparently the director most adept at harnessing Brody’s unique livewire energy, Anderson in tandem with his actor transforms Cadazio into a living, breathing paradox of art as commerce as Brody leaps back and forth, mid-scene, mid-sentence, from profit-making philistine to genuine artistic appreciator. Honestly, this is one of my favorite performances of the year, just sort of hiding in plain view. With his calm yet cantankerous air, del Toro embodies Anderson’s ultra-dry joke about a tortured artist while Seydoux’s stone face in combination with her character, willing to sit for the artist while also smack him one when he gets unruly, quietly embodies the age-old, more recently controversial notion, of respecting the art, not the artist.

“Revisions to a Manifesto”, the second feature, refers to a declaration being penned by Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), student revolutionary being chronicled by The French Dispatch’s Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). Thought the passage might reference France’s May of 1968 protests, Anderson is not re-imagining those real-life events so much as putting his own nostalgic sensibilities under the microscope, both satirizing the idea of youthful rebellion and holding it aloft as the ultimate ideal. (In one bravura sequence, Anderson recounts Zeffirelli’s play about youthful ambition and looming adult responsibilities by moving the camera so close that he virtually merges a stage production with his own cinematic format, so that when a character in the play ostensibly jumps out a window, the technique makes it seem as if he really does, but one example of Anderson’s astonishing visual poetry.) He does the latter most specifically through Krementz, whose emergent relationship with Zeffirelli not only probes the idea of journalistic neutrality but brings her close to something in which, figuratively if lyrically speaking, she discovers she can no longer participate but still appreciate.

In the climactic third feature, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner”, a food writer, Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), profiles a chef, Lt. Nescaffier (Steve Park), specializing in the mythical haute cuisine of Police Cooking. Though seemingly superabundant with unharmonious narrative elements, these are delicately layered to draw other elements out, a prisoner who becomes the object of a ransom demand emphasizing how Roebuck got his start with The French Dispatch, Nescaffier’s experience as a immigrant evoking Roebuck’s, and so on, so that an ostensible piece about Nescaffier’s gastronomy becomes as much a Roebuck himself, a personal history intertwined with a profile, all building to the crucial moment when the author and editor disagree over whether a certain quote should be included in the final piece, nothing less than an illustration of contradictory aesthetic interpretations. 

In a way, Anderson is communicating the same idea to his audience, that this, his film, is open not only to interpretation but appraisal. Do you like it or don’t you? If you do, thanks; if you don’t, so be it, not that he would change a thing. The epilogue is an obituary for Howitzer himself and The French Dispatch honoring his specific, unsentimental request that the publication itself be terminated along with him, the presses dismantled and liquified. This, however, is not so much a eulogy for the character as Anderson’s own version of a manifesto. Because if someone else is going to tell him how to make “The French Dispatch”, then you might as well disassemble the whole cut and burn it.  

No comments: