The French Dispatch review: Utterly exquisite and deceptively complex

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The French Dispatch review: Utterly exquisite and deceptively complex
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Dir: Wes Anderson. Starring: Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet. 15, 103 minutes.

Wes Anderson is a collector – of songs, old movies, and errant emotions. In his films, he carefully arranges these things like a young child displaying trophies on a bedroom shelf. That’s never been more evident than in his latest, The French Dispatch, in which he gets to expound on his twin loves: the country of France and the journalism of the New Yorker magazine. An anthology piece, the film offers up three short stories (and a little extra on the side) recounted by ex-pat American writers based in the fictional French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé (which translates roughly to Boredom-on-Indifference).

And, like the very best of Anderson’s films, The French Dispatch is both utterly exquisite and deceptively complex – a film that, like the finest of dishes, is even richer in its aftertaste. At first, there is the aesthetic pleasure of his dollhouse dioramas. Never has Anderson’s work seemed so balanced, detailed, and precise, as captured by his regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman. It’s also so packed with A-listers and favoured collaborators that appearances by Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan and Oscar winner Christoph Waltz feel almost like an afterthought. But then, underneath, lies the sadness – a distinct feature of the Anderson film, where very lonely souls try to romanticise their pain through Sixties records and vintage leather shoes. It should feel trite and inauthentic. But why, then, do his films always make me cry?

The French Dispatch specifically indulges in, and perhaps mourns, the romantic fantasy of a time when journalists were handsomely paid, creatively free, and beloved by their employers. Editor Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray), based on The New Yorker’s co-founder Harold Ross, is unwaveringly sentimental about the craft, despite his gruff demeanour and “no crying” motto. Travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) guides us through Ennui-sur-Blasé’s gentrified history and rat-filled tunnels. JKL Berensen’s (Tilda Swinton) tale of an imprisoned painter (Benicio del Toro) and his muse (Léa Seydoux) takes subtle aim at the ways the label of “tortured genius” can descend like a fog in front of the eyes of others.

Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) falls in with a pack of student revolutionaries, led by the wild-haired and poetically inclined Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) – a treatise on “the touching narcissism of the young” who seek absolute freedom, whatever the cost. Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright, in the film’s standout performance), based on the writers James Baldwin and AJ Liebling, delivers an amusing tale of a fraught kidnap case that ends in an elaborate feast. What unites these disparate chapters is the shared conclusion that, in order to fully dedicate yourself to your craft, you must be ready to accept a solitary existence. Lucinda, at one point, ponders whether she’s crying because she’s sad or because the riot police’s tear gas has started to flood the room she’s sitting in. Both, in fact, are true.

Bill Murray, Wally Wolodarsky, and Jeffrey Wright in ‘The French Dispatch’ (20th Century Studios)
Bill Murray, Wally Wolodarsky, and Jeffrey Wright in ‘The French Dispatch’ (20th Century Studios)

But Anderson is no cynic, and The French Dispatch rigorously argues the worth of those sacrifices. Mostly, the vignettes play out in monochrome, but they blossom into his customary palette of pastels and faded neutrals whenever the story needs to express a writer or artist’s raison d’être – an abstract painting, a six-course meal, political radicals falling in love.

Anderson, who’s absorbed French culture like a bit of baguette sopping up the sauce from a plate, shows such care and delicacy in his vision of the country. Yes, it’s been filtered through his obsession with the New Wave movement and its filmmakers, like Jean‑Luc Godard and François Truffaut, but also through experience and memory (he lives in Paris).

The French Dispatch is never more moving than when it simply documents the daily rituals of Ennui-sur-Blasé. Terriers dashing across cobbled streets as an old woman opens a pair of shutters to let in the early morning light. A galette des rois, a traditional French cake, shared around a large family table to mark Epiphany. Teens crowded around a café jukebox, arguing simply because they can. What a beautiful place it is to visit.

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