‘Dispatches’ from a perfectly romantic memory

For all The French Dispatch has to offer visually, it’s Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and his psychotic hair that carries the movie’s iconography. Images courtesy Searchlight Pictures.

10/10 In an Oscar season that’s quickly turned into an onslaught of big-name directors’ newest works, seemingly both backlogged 2020 releases and lockdown productions, writer/director/producer Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun is the giant, perfectly symmetrical jewel dead at the center of the crown wreath of anticipated films capping 2021.

Ennui-sur-Blasé, France, 1975- Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), editor and founder of The French Dispatch, has died of a heart attack, and as his was the beating heart of the Dispatch, so the magazine must die. The film relates the final publication of The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Cycling reporter Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) updates on daily life in Ennui; J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) lectures on the masterpieces of incarcerated painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro); Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) delivers a whistful, gonzo report on tensions at the local university, as male students’ attempts to get into the girls’ dorm have boiled over into The Chessboard Revolution; and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright, no relation) gives an interview on a thrilling dinner with the Ennui police commissaire (Mathieu Amalric) and his private chef, Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park), during which the commissaire’s son is kidnapped.

Anderson, 25 years and 10 films into his iconic filmmaking career, somehow keeps getting more meticulously perfect with every feature. His signature perfectly symmetrical sets are bigger than ever, with several split-second shots that encompass entire city blocks at a time.

With most of the stories told as flashbacks, The French Dispatch employs black and white frequently and at low contrast, as the bubblegum pastels of Anderson’s world remain soft and unblemished even when they’re desaturated. This breaks at seemingly arbitrary moments for sudden bursts of color, shocking viewers with the sudden removal of one layer of artifice as we are pulled in and out of total immersion with this hyptonic, delightful film.

Angoulême, which stands in for the fictional Ennui-sur-Blasé, was completely taken over during shooting – production designer Adam Stockhausen estimates they built 125 sets for the movie, most of them on location in the town.

As grand and distinguishing a step up as the sets and symmetry are, the smaller details also seem sharper, especially character placement. In one particular scene with Krementz at a dinner table between two sources and across from an empty seat, camera placement is used to wrap the table around from full to seemingly almost empty and in between without any of the characters moving. The French Dispatch is a constant play at things like that, not just meticulous in the way all of Anderson’s films are, but somehow applying a broader sense of detail to his already detailed style. 

The dialogue and narration are completely perfect, as the flim’s master wordsmiths paint a picture of their experience to overlay the picture onscreen. The music, kept to simple repetition of a few key themes, is magical.

The Andersonian comedy is also taken to new heights here. He’s long been one of the funniest active flimmakers, with compositional jokes and pace shifting that render his movies hilarious even when watched in silence and absurdist asides in the dialogue that add new dimensions of humor, but, as with everything, the punchlines come a mile a minute in The French Dispatch.

The French Dispatch immediately becomes one of the best journalism movies ever made. More than just a love letter to journalists, it is a love letter to daily life through the lens of its observers. Howitzer is a titan of an editor, and all the articles are ferociously truthful. The film takes a defiant attitude toward the notion that a journalist ought to be a simple fly on the wall, forcefully interrogating the idea that a human reporter even can be a passive observer, let alone why the reader would want them to be one.

The articles go out of their way to break all journalistic convention, willfully opinionated and recklessly personal, brazenly sacrificing every opportunity to deflect attention from the writer if it even marginally throws the story into sharper relief. These are not only the stories of their subjects and what happens to them as they paint or cook or revolt, but of the writers and what happens to them on assignment, how the story changes the teller and what it all means to live a rounded, full life in Ennui.

In the same ways, The French Dispatch is possibly the loneliest movie ever made to be this horny, or maybe the other way around. No matter how close they get for the scoop, the writers always remain divorced from the events they’re covering, and their necessary isolation simmers in every word. The separation, like the layers of artifice between the memory of the assignment and the present of polishing it up for publication, like the distance between the viewer and the screen, forms a skeleton the film is draped over.

Far beyond the literal drives to seek sex and companionship, everyone in The French Dispatch is passionate and alive and doing something they enjoy, and the fundamental desires of its stories aren’t teased out, they’re laying right on the surface. The Chessboard Revolution isn’t about college parties, it’s about freedom! “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” isn’t just a dinner-turned-adventure, it’s an immigrant story about using talent to get past institutional barriers. Writers fuck their sources frequently, and everyone seems to constantly be playing chess.

The French Dispatch may be the best distillation of Anderson’s mood yet, because he’s never just been about the sets and colors and camerawork. There’s a particular passion to his work, an ennui as it were, that isn’t appreciated enough through the marvelous technical detail even though it’s the reason for it all. His sets and his films are the perfect, sugary snowglobes frozen in time that he can’t turn the real world into, moments that never happened captured, idealized, romanticized and fossilized in memory all at once.

As we spend the rest of our lives grieving for this disappearing world, Anderson’s films offer a glimpse into one that is already gone even as you look at it for the first time, scratching a particular itch for simultaneous love and loss that no other filmmaker even approaches. If The French Dispatch, with its plot, its ambitious visuals and its audacious romance for itself and everything in it, isn’t his best work, it’s certainly his biggest, wildest and most daring.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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