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The French Dispatch

***1/2

by Matt Anderson

published October 19, 2021

With its focus on the craft of writing and a huge (as in ginormous) ensemble cast, The French Dispatch is genuine Oscar bait.

Silence! Writers Writing

This one’s all about the art of writing. Carefully chosen words. The dialogue, the descriptive phrases. It’s a salute to The New Yorker. It’s a tribute to independent journalism. And, during the end credits, it’s dedicated to a long list of famed writers, including E.B. White.

So, naturally, a movie that demonstrates such a loving respect for the craft of writing is sure to find a special place in the hearts of writers — most especially those hearts found in the bodies of film critics and screenwriters. In that respect, it’s also quite a treat. The skill of writing — quality writing — is often given mere lip service while the 24/7 news cycle values expedience over excellence. Accuracy is a concept now long-dead in the world of journalism. Objectivity? That one’s a dirty word in the polarized world of partisan reporting that focuses on the emotions engendered by sensationalist coverage instead of the old-school practice of sticking to the facts.

Facts. What a major inconvenience for all sides.

Identical comments can be directed toward filmmaking. The big money is made with movies featuring over-the-top explosions and weightless drama; the less challenging the vicarious experiences, the better for the box office.

And that leads to another aspect of The French Dispatch that makes it a fun little romp. There are explosions and some gunfire. But they’re in black-and-white and in a 1.375:1 aspect ratio. As the movie shifts aspect ratios and toggles between full color and black-and-white, the movie also serves as a loving tribute to visual storytelling as Anderson so playfully creates an entire world of unconventional personalities and colorful situations.

No Crying

Anderson’s latest world is full of details.

The French Dispatch (which originated as a publication called Picnic) was a weekly magazine that covered it all — politics, art, human interest features — and delivered it to a global circulation of 500,000. The magazine was based in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, a microcosm of all things French. Plus, the magazine had a quirky connection to Liberty, Kansas and a building dubbed the Doorstop (which makes for a great visual gag). The magazine’s hey-day was 1925-1975 and it ceased publication after the publisher’s death.

Details. Lotsa details. There’s a remarkable amount of minutiae to be experienced throughout The French Dispatch; it’s the kind of richness that’s sure to reward repeat viewings.

In the spirit of the magazine format, The French Dispatch (the movie) highlights three stories from the famed publication published exclusively in the recesses of Anderson’s mind. Those movie articles are bookended by interactions with the magazine’s publisher, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray, Ghostbusters), and staff. Arthur loved good writing and he was known to give out this piece of sage advice: “Make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.”

Overall, the format provides a vibrant tapestry upon which Anderson rolls out a classic cavalcade of stars, a virtual who’s-who of Hollywood that includes Anderson’s go-to favorites, including Murray (at the tippy-top of that list), Adrien Brody (Midnight in Paris), Frances McDormand (Nomadland) and Owen Wilson (Zoolander) as well as a swarm of newcomers, notably Timothée Chalamet (Dune), Léa Seydoux (No Time to Die), Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale), Christoph Waltz (Spectre), Benecio Del Toro (Sicario) and Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat).

And so, so many more.

The Best Part

The French Dispatch is in many respects the ultimate arthouse movie; it’s the perfect movie to be followed by a visit to a cozy café and a conversation revisiting all that unfolded on the screen. The anthology format — wrapped in the context of an appreciation for words and filmmaking — gives Anderson a remarkably rich environment. Each of the three featured stories represents a different narrative style.

The opening story — about Moses Rosenthaler (Del Toro), an imprisoned killer turned sensitive artist who finds a muse in a female security guard, Simone (Seydoux), whom he frequently paints in the nude — is told from a very colorful perspective. It’s all framed around an on-stage lecture by an art historian, J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton, Doctor Strange), who takes her audience through the history of Rosenthaler’s art and the wheeling and dealing of his fellow inmate turned agent, Julian Cadazio (Brody). Keeping with the theme of detail, Anderson spares none as he creates an impeccably realized art lecture.

Things take a dramatic shift in the second article, which centers on (yet another) student-led French revolution in 1968. This one features McDormand as Lucinda Krementz (wait for it — a writer) who provides counsel, editing and (much) more to Chalamet’s Zeffirelli, a young revolutionary who sees politics and poetry as natural bed fellows, while also falling in love with Juliette (Lyna Khoudri, The Specials), a fellow activist who perpetually wears her scooter helmet like it’s the latest and greatest of fashion accessories.

Lots of words and wordplay in those, but they’re all trumped by the third story, which is fashioned after a talk show from the 1960s. In this case, the Dick Cavett-like host is played by Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan) and his guest is Roebuck Wright (no relation to Jeffrey Wright, who portrays him). Roebuck is a journalist with a memory the host references as “photographic.” But Roebuck corrects him; his is a “typographic” memory. He remembers every word he’s ever written and can quote entire passages from his own work.

That includes a recounting of an episode involving an imprisoned accountant named Albert the Abacus (Willem Dafoe, The English Patient), a mafia-like group that demands his release and a chef who finds a whole new culinary sensation by way of a poisonous seasoning. This episode even includes an animated sequence that is decidedly French in styling (an inspiration might well be the Belgian Tin-Tin cartoons).

Note from the Publisher

The French Dispatch (take that as both the magazine and the movie) is an exercise in pure creativity, and that itself is its own joy and its own reward. The imaginary world-building continues right on into the end credits, as a collection of “historic” French Dispatch magazine covers are displayed alongside the list of that impressive collection of talent both in front of and behind the camera.

The initial impression while exiting the theatre focuses on the seemingly effortless lightness of the experience overall. At times, the material comes across as Anderson (no known relation to the author of these words) being overly self-indulgent.

But, unlike so many movies released these days, the devil is indeed in all those details and what seemed to be merely an indulgence at first blush transforms into something that’s wholly more satisfying.

If it’s a self-indulgence at first, it soon after becomes a shared indulgence.