Tuesday, January 25

Stream it or skip it: ‘The French Dispatch’ on VOD, in which Wes Anderson further refines his wonderful

The French office – now on VOD – is Wes Anderson’s new fantasy, a work that, along with the filmmaker’s course, demands that anyone who discusses it use the word “fantasy” as a noun. Also, the words “funny”, “whimsical”, “melancholic” and “secoyyyyy”. And “twee”. I must not forget “twee”. Anderson’s films are many things, but above all they are “twee”. With that out of the way, we can get on with the task of evaluating the film, which was delayed a year and a half thanks to the Covid pandemic, and was magnified with enough stellar energy to heat a solar system – this is where I’d say it is. starring Tilda Swinton and none of the rest matters, but it also stars Frances McDormand and Bill Murray, so such a statement would be too incorrigible. When the story doesn’t take place in Liberty, Kansas, a real city, it takes place in Ennui-sur-Blasé, France, a fake city, and despite that, it is never, never boring.


The essence: To give away one of the film’s many, many key takeaways, The French Dispatch is a magazine, “a largely unread Sunday supplement to the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun”. And yet it’s on a seemingly outsized budget, possibly because this movie is ridiculous and doesn’t reflect reality in the slightest except when it does, emotionally at least, or because it’s set in 1975, when journalism had real value. The Dispatch is a satellite office reporting all the crucial stories from Ennui, France, to everyone in the heart of America. Publisher Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Murray) has died and the Dispatch will join him. It is a pity. He hired some good writers – “they were his people” – and we are about to meet three of them as they share perhaps the best and most moving stories of their careers.

First up is JKL Berensen, played by Swinton as being at least 40 percent upper jaw. (Sounds like I have more teeth than common sense.) Lecturer in front of an audience, it tells the story of Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), a master artist who also happens to be a suicidal and psychotic homicide author. He has been in prison for 10 years and has 40 more left. We meet him while studying the nude form of Simone (Lea Seydoux), a prison guard with whom he is having an affair. His painting is nothing like the naked Simone. It is abstract. It’s also a masterpiece, if you believe fellow inmate Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody), an art dealer who wants to buy the painting. Moses says it will cost 50, no, 75 cigarettes, but Julian gives him 250,000 francs instead. Julian steps out, turns Moses into the great publicized hope of the art world, and waits as the tortured painter uses Simone as his muse and tries to overcome his exquisite inner pain to create his next great work. THREE YEARS LATER, he reads a caption, and the words have barely faded from the screen when Julian exclaims, “It’s three years later!” And we all laugh, because maybe we are amused by those things and / or Julian’s exasperation. . , and the anticipation that leads to the presentation of the new painting of Moses.

Part deux is a piece from the Dispatch section called “Politics / Poetry,” which might explain why hardly anyone reads the magazine. Writer Lucinda Krementz (McDormand) no-nos-no-nos journalistically while covering a student revolution in Ennui – something about boys wanting access to the girls’ dormitory. Lucinda ends up in bed with the movement’s lean and passionate leader, Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet). He types a manifesto, she edits it, and provides an appendix. Do the math and the romance is spooky, but this is France, remember. Anyway, there are a couple of throwaway lines about the impossibility of journalistic neutrality displayed as excuses, and after a while he pushes the boy towards his rebellious partner Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). The fate of the revolution, and Zeffirelli, will determine whether Lucinda’s article is hard news or a human interest story, but I won’t reveal which.

Finally, Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) not only writes about cooking, but remembers every word he wrote and in what order, what he does for a television interview, praying his article on Lieutenant Nescaffier (Steve Park), a chef who makes Unbelievably exquisite meals for the Ennui police. You’d think the story would involve lost sandwiches and stale donuts, but no, it’s more about how the commissioner’s son (Mathieu Amalric) was kidnapped by a thief in ballet slippers (Edward Norton), the attempt to get him back, and also possibly, how Roebuck was imprisoned for being gay, where he occupied the same cell that currently contains a strange little man played by Willem Dafoe. There are reasons for all this, and a result of the kidnapping plot, and luscious photographs of sumptuous food as the police hatch a plan to rescue the boy.

Photo: Searchlight Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

What movies will it remind you of ?: It seems hyperbolic to say that Anderson’s films have no obvious benchmarks, but it is quite true. It is an original. So instead of listing all of his films, here is a highly subjective ranking from best to least best of them, subject to change as the years go by and the outlook evolves, with The French office placed weakly in the middle because not enough time has passed to fully assess its staying power, and with regret at the low ranking of Fantastic Mr. Fox, which maybe should be in no. one:

  1. Rushmore
  2. El Gran Hotel Budapest
  3. The Royal Tenenbaums
  4. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  5. Moonrise Kingdom
  6. The French office
  7. Bottle rocket
  8. Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
  9. Isle of Dogs
  10. El Darjeeling Limited

Performance worth watching: High-profile cast members not mentioned so far: Bob Balaban, Henry Winkler, Liev Schreiber, Saoirse Ronan, Christoph Waltz, Elisabeth Moss. Yet no one made me laugh like Lois Smith, playing Upshur “Maw” Clampette, an art aficionado with a heavy yokel accent in pursuit of an atomic-grade farce.

Diálogo memorable: Impassive, of course:

Zeffirelli: Why are you crying?

Lucinda Krementz: Tear gas. Also, I guess I’m sad.

Sex and skin: IMDb says the “sex and nudity” content is “severe,” but God, it’s just a picture or four of men and women without clothes.

Our Take: What does all this add up to, exactly? A Wes Anderson movie, that is. A Wes Anderson movie about… himself? A bit. Anything else? A rare and thoughtful type of long-running journalism that is surely best for the lapses of objectivity and propensity of its creators to make their stories reflect their personal emotions and feelings. Is there a bigger account of the bombing of Dresden in WWII than that of Kurt Vonnegut? Slaughterhouse five? Probably not. You can see The French office on a quest for ‘general themes’, but I think you’re looking up when you should be looking down, under the floorboards of the script, where the hearts of good writers reside, in boxes, throbbing with a telltale pulse, strong and endless. Because good writers cannot stick to simple facts, observations, and descriptions, or divorce themselves from feelings of empathy.

I would be delinquent in my journalistic duties not to point out that a movie with engagingly funny and complex depictions of writers is a very good way to get positive reviews. (I’d say it feels like a compliment, but good writers tend to hate the idea that they are good writers.) But Anderson has enjoyed positive reviews for more than two decades, even for films that are about non-writers. This is a long way of saying that Anderson is playing his base with The French office, and he’s perfectly content to do it, honing the minutiae of his ingenious technique. So, here are all the things that add up to a Wes Anderson movie:

  • Nested doll narratives
  • Low-key, strictly modulated performances by an absurdly large renowned group (many of whom have previously starred in Wes Anderson films)
  • Symmetry, symmetry, symmetry
  • Side-scrolling follow-up shots
  • Planned 2-D
  • Lotsa text on screen
  • Voice-over narration
  • Detailed arrangement of elements and / or people in one shot
  • Distinctive color palettes
  • Sad / lonely / haunting background masked by irony / satire / parody
  • Heightened representations of reality
  • Exquisitely detailed assemblages, sometimes depicting cross sections of ships, airplanes, or buildings.
  • Convolution

There are more andersonisms. These are just the big ones, all of them accounted for in ShipmentAnderson’s gestures, in abundance, perhaps more pronounced in their eccentricity and complexity than ever before. So consider yourself warned if you are tired of such things, but why would you be? Anderson releases a new movie every two to three years, and it’s certainly the only movie that looks, sounds, and feels like this in those two or three years. He never fails to find comedy and pathos in his quirky characters who live inside small ornately designed boxes, in a world more visually fantastical than ours, but one that is often similar in its poignant emotional coin. Bottom Line: Wes Anderson is getting better and better at making Wes Anderson movies.

Our calling: And we love Wes Anderson movies, right? Correct. STREAM IT.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.


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