Combustible Celluloid
With: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Liev Schreiber, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston, Fisher Stevens, Griffin Dunne, Lois Smith, Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban, Lyna Khoudri, Alex Lawther, Mohamed Belhadjine, Rupert Friend, Cécile de France, Guillaume Gallienne, Christoph Waltz, Hippolyte Girardot
Written by: Wes Anderson, based on a story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, Jason Schwartzman
Directed by: Wes Anderson
MPAA Rating: R for graphic nudity, some sexual references and language
Running Time: 103
Date: 10/22/2021

The French Dispatch (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Pearly Magazine

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The tenth feature film by Wes Anderson, The French Dispatch seems to be comprised of a cast of every actor that has ever been in any Wes Anderson film. Perhaps it takes a certain type of actor or a certain temperament to be able to embody his singular kind of dialogue and full-square framing. Either way, it's a gorgeous movie, consistently amusing, and with enough strange, small ideas to populate ten other films. Also known under its long title, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, it tells the story of a magazine very much like The New Yorker.

The editor is Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), a man who values his writers, and who leaves in typos if he feels that they were intended. ("Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose" is his advice.) As the movie begins, Howitzer has died, and his will stipulates that the magazine — which caters to English readers in France — will also be shut down. So we get a handful of stories, illustrating what the magazine, and its writers, are like. First is a short and amusing tale of a travel writer, Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), and his day in Paris.

Next is a longer story of an artist, narrated by magazine writer J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), and how he came to make his troubled masterpiece. The artist is Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) who learns to paint in prison, and finds his muse in a beautiful guard, Simone (Léa Seydoux); their first scene together is classic switch-up comedy. A fast-talking art dealer (Adrien Brody) discovers him and commissions the masterpiece, which turns into a melee of money and comical violence.

The second long story, which feels the longest, is told by magazine writer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). While covering student protests in the 1960s, she becomes involved with a young revolutionary named Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), and even winds up editing his manifesto (and re-writing most of it).

The third story, based around food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright, channeling James Baldwin) as he's being interviewed for television, tells the convoluted, but terrific story of a police chef (it's a certain kind of cuisine designed specifically for police officers) and a kidnapped boy. This one has so many twists and turns it may be impossible to recall exactly what you saw, but it winds up with a most profound little moment.

I found the finale, back in the magazine's main offices, to be quite touching as well, although I confess that, while I enjoyed many pleasant giggles, the movie isn't quite as funny as Anderson's best. He's a master comedy craftsman, perhaps closest to Frank Tashlin, but also with touches of Jacques Tati, Jerry Lewis, and Ernst Lubitsch; the meticulous methods employed to create a joke sometimes result in the methods being more interesting than the joke itself, but that may not necessarily be a bad thing. Tati's films are not always hilarious, but they're never dull, and these types of films definitely benefit from subsequent viewings.

Anderson's frames are always shot straight-on, with subjects often centered, rarely off-kilter, and every detail of every frame is there for a reason. When movement is required here, we get bizarre tableaus of actors frozen in mid-movement. But Anderson's dialogue is also intricately crafted, with a slew of words chosen for their timbre, pitch, and rhythm, as if to create music; sometimes just a combination of words can be funnier than an actual one-liner, and create more movement than the actual images.

While The French Dispatch is about American writers, Anderson was reportedly inspired by a long list of French films, including the risky French New Wave films, which seem a long way from Anderson's sensibility, but which certainly cast a shadow over the McDormand segment. That segment is probably the edgiest thing Anderson has ever done, which proves that he's still maturing, and that — despite what his many critics say — his particular brand of filmmaking can be home to a thousand more stories.

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