Sunday, October 03, 2021

"The French Dispatch" at the NY Film Festival

With his familiar tongue-in-cheek deadpan that makes Buster Keaton appear like a loquacious lady at a garden party, Wes Anderson brings us his latest film, The French Dispatch, an anthology picture about an American expatriate magazine in the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. 

The movie is a loving Valentine to The New Yorker magazine as well as being filled with all kinds of homages to French cinema. The movie presents stories that go back to some famous articles that originally appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. For example, Mavis Gallant's article "The Events in May: A Paris Notebook" about the student riots in 1968 serves as a vehicle for Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand and Lyna Khoudri to engage in a love triangle in the protest-filled streets of Paris, while Anderson channels the look and gritty black-and-white of Jean-Luc Godard and other members of the Nouvelle Vague.

In another tangential vignette, Jeffrey Wright gives us an impersonation of a fictitious writer that mixes James Baldwin with a dash of food critic AJ Liebling as he recounts a story to TV host Liev Schreiver of a bizarre kidnapping that ends up turning into an animated sequence during the concluding minutes.

In perhaps the most enjoyable section of the film, Benicio Del Toro is an incarcerated artist in love with a female prison guard, beautifully played by Léa Seydoux, while art dealer Adrien Brody lays some schemes to make money off the prisoner's art work. As he tells Del Toro's character “All artists sell their work. That’s what makes them artists.” The segment, also shot in black-and-white, brings to mind Jean Renoir's film Boudou Saved from Drowning, and it is based on a 1951 New Yorker article by SN Behrman about shady art dealer Lord Duveen.

All the different segments always come back to the offices of the French Dispatch, whose editor-in-chief, played by Bill Murray, bears a more than slight resemblance to Harold Ross, The New Yorker's co-founder and fabled first editor.

What binds all of this together is Anderson's love of the magazine and his love of France. From the point of view of cinema, the glue in this film is his, by now, familiar geometric mise-en-scène, which in this film he exploits to the nth degree. Arguably, this is the most Andersonian of all his films. Everything is neatly arranged within a frame whose aspect ratio, for reasons that remain unclear to me, keeps changing from academy ratio to widescreen. He used the same technique in his earlier film The Grand Budapest Hotel. If you dig his symmetrical, structural compositions you are in for a treat. However, after a while, the constant reliance on tableaux and strict visual order cries out for some good old fashion visual chaos. And although at times Anderson allows his brilliant cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman to hand-hold the camera, the Andersonian world must adhere to unity and order all the time.

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