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Wes Anderson’s new film: ‘The French Dispatch’

| Friday, October 29, 2021

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

I love Wes Anderson. I’ve seen most of his films multiple times and I have a hardcover copy of the coffee table classic, “Accidentally Wes Anderson,” proudly displayed in my room. I dream of being as mysteriously moody as Margot Tenenbaum, impressively cool as Fantastic Mr. Fox and recklessly in love as Suzie Bishop. TL;DR, I’m obsessed. 

So, when I heard Anderson was coming out with a new movie, “The French Dispatch,” suffice it to say I was metaphorically jumping up and down. The release was subsequently pushed back because of the pandemic, but it’s finally out in select theaters. 

In a sentence, I’d describe this film as the hot, indie cousin of “Paris, Je T’aime.” This series of short stories comes together in a sweet ode to life in a small fictional French town, Ennui. Anderson organizes the plot in one of the most unique ways I’ve ever seen — the structure of the plot flows like the titular magazine, The French Dispatch.

The magazine and movie both start with the obituary for Bill Murray’s character, the papers’ editor Arthur Howitzer. Then, we watch Owen Wilson as his character, the Biking Journalist, give the local color reporting. The three main articles come next, each telling completely different stories through the perspective of the journalists and the subjects of the articles.

In comparison to the rest of his body of work, this film feels busier. A Wes Anderson film doesn’t count unless the characters speak quietly and very rapidly while moving through an often random, but simple plot. Wes Anderson films are cult classics for a reason; they aren’t action-packed or deeply heartfelt. They’re visually stunning, smartly funny and extremely quirky. I wouldn’t recommend “The French Dispatch” to someone who has never seen one of his movies before. However, the cast compensates for the film’s shortcomings. Tilda Swinton plays the perfect overly-enthusiastic art journalist presenting at a conference. Meanwhile, Timothée Chalamet’s rendition of a rebellious college student is deeply relatable as he searches for a cause. 

“The French Dispatch” differs from past films in that instead of dealing with solely interpersonal struggles, like familial relationships and love, it also focuses on societal maladies. The film deals with themes of protest, incarceration, police and crime. These topics are broached in a very light and airy, Wes Anderson way, where everyone is very charming and quick-witted and there’s no real sense of gravity or interrogation.

While the situations the characters are thrown into are humorous, their responses to them are completely serious. Anderson inverts the typical structure of film humor, where characters tend to make light of serious situations. Instead, Anderson’s characters adopt this darker, ironic sense of humor that vastly contrasts the bright setting they exist in. 

The name of the town, Ennui, is one of the most significant metaphors that acts as the glue between these very different stories that occur in this one sleepy French town:

“Ennui /änˈwē/ noun a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.”

In the Arts and Artists section of the paper, the article “The Concrete Masterpiece” follows an incarcerated artist, Moses Rosenthaler, from his traumatic past to rise to stardom and from his tortured artist period to his concrete masterpiece. His childhood and young adult life were marked by poverty, alcoholism and violence. He was imprisoned for murder and went insane. Art became a source of excitement and purpose that grounded him. Through his art, Moses met his muse, Simone, a prison guard. Moses falls into requited love with Simone and paints abstract portraits of her for years. Once he’s discovered, he gains stardom very quickly and begins to feel immense pressure to produce more paintings. He becomes this tortured artist, unable to function or feel inspired. Moses’ ennui is overcome by the completion of “The Concrete Masterpiece,” a series of frescas on the prison wall of Simone, and the prison is transformed. 

The Dispatcher’s food critic writes from the private dining room of the Ennui Police Commissioner. In a wild turn of events, this peaceful dinner is turned into a kidnapping rescue when a group of criminals come together to kidnap the commissioner’s son. During the sting operation, the criminals allow the commissioner’s private chef to come to their hideout and make a meal for the kidnappers. The chef secretly poisons the meal, but before he can serve it, the criminals force him to take a bite. After the child is saved, the chef is rushed to the hospital where he survives the poison. In a black-and-white shot, the chef tells the journalist from his hospital bed, “The poison had a flavor.” The chef is astounded by the flavor because it’s like nothing he’s ever tasted before. In his old age, he’d assumed he’s made and tasted all their was. There’s this eerie beauty to this scene because of the danger of the poison, but also because the confused joy it gives this selfless man.

Wes combines this and other articles to look into the lives of Ennui’s people. This film was, as all his films are, visually stunning. The script reads like a newspaper, while the film looks like a painting. Even in the black-and-white shots, the film looks full of life. Overall, I think this was Anderson’s most unique piece of work, but not his best story. I believe “The French Dispatch” will spark conversation around film production and different ways to write for the screen. Anderson makes movies for people who love them, and I believe he reached this audience but will struggle to attract the average viewer.

At one point in the film, Bill Murray’s character offers a bit of wisdom, “Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.” It is a commentary about always allowing room for instinct and inspiration, even if you are a precise technician. Good advice for all of us — including Wes Anderson. 

 

Title: “The French Dispatch”

Director: Wes Anderson

Starring: Bill Murray, Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand

If you liked: “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Shamrocks: 3 out of 5

 

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