Since his second feature film Rushmore, which heralded each new month in history with velvet curtains around the image, Wes Anderson exhibited a mania for placing picture frames within picture frames. He sees chapter titles, signs, labels, even the dialogue itself as a means of dissecting a story into its components, highlighting every element of his meticulously constructed universes. In The French dispatch, which has just received its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival (delayed a year from its original date, thanks to COVID-19), he uses this style to bring a magazine modeled on his own to life. -loved New Yorker. The fictitious French expedition is an insert at the same time fictitious Evening sun Liberty Kansas, edited by Arthur Horowitz Jr. (Bill Murray) and based in Ennui-Sur-Blasé, France. (“8.25 bodies are removed from the Blasé River each week,” intones narrator Anjelica Huston.) Staff include art critic JKL Berensen (Tilda Swinton), investigative journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) and food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), who are well taken care of. Horowitz is generous with the expenses, spitting out money to keep Berensen in a hotel only to remember a lover she once took there. Each worker has a spacious office in the French expedition HQ, which carries a warning sign Silence! Writers writing.
The film is structured like a number of the Sending, divided into an obituary, three stories and an endnote. Berensen leads the first story, concerning the fortune of convicted murderer Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro in wild man mode), whose abstract nude of his prison guard muse Simone (Léa Seydoux) attracts the attention of the art world. Then comes a political report from Krementz, who embarks with, then layers, the chess player and leader of the student revolution Zeffirelli B (Timothée Chalamet). Finally, Wright goes to interview a famous police chief, only to be dragged into a caper after the young son of the commissioner (Matthieu Amalric) is kidnapped.
The film’s formal inventiveness pushes the boundaries, even for Anderson. During the Student Revolution, a shot sees the buttercup yellow facade of Student Cafe HQ rolled aside as the camera moves forward to see what’s going on inside. The story of a student sent to the army is told via a flash-before to a performance of a play that will eventually be written about him. Moments from the kidnapping story are portrayed via animation, embodying Wright’s tongue-in-cheek voiceover as he says “the getaway was brought to life, albeit a little inaccurate, in a tape. comic published the following week “. Anderson enjoys owning artifice, building a nesting doll of storytelling modes. The script is so precise that it is perfect; Anderson has always had a flair for the language, and it makes sense that this quality culminates in a film about writers.
While it’s sometimes hard to keep up with the dizzying level of detail and swirling storytelling, it’s a consummate pleasure to be in the world of The French dispatch. Instead of full character arcs, each actor has the opportunity to convey something impressionistic and often deeply emotional during their moment in the limelight. Anderson manages this tribe of talent like a respectful conductor, and every actor knows their power comes from conflicting elements. Seydoux plays a harsh authoritarian who believes in the power of art, while Chalamet’s strident revolutionary is utterly vulnerable in front of an older woman. Wright is extremely moving, exuding grace and melancholy through what is essentially an extended tribute to James Baldwin (who has a dedication in the credits).
Amid the ooh-ahh of the pristine 1960s set design and the walking rolodex of the A-listers, one wonders about the coherent momentum under these stories. Much of Anderson’s work focuses on the nostalgia and grandeur of Lost Worlds. The French dispatch is part of this trend, especially his 2014 film The Grand Hotel Budapest. In the old days, it was enough for him to make films in real places, but Hotel’s Zubrowka and Ennui-sur-Blasé are pure sweets. Despite the whimsy, there is a deep desire in this tendency to conjure great castles in the sky.
The French dispatch opens in theaters October 16.