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French Dispatch, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"It’s An Institution"
4 stars

Remember that scene in “Being John Malkovich” where the actual Malkovich takes the trip inside of his own head and finds himself in an existence that is literally all Malkovich all the time? (If you haven’t seen the film, I promise you that the previous sentence will actually make sense once you do.) I couldn’t help but think of that moment while watching “The French Dispatch,” the latest vehicle for the always-idiosyncratic Wes Anderson to indulge in his personal cinematic whims and obsessions on ever-increasing canvases. Normally I do not like to use the phrase “self-indulgent” when discussing any artistic endeavor—after all, almost all art is an exercise in self-indulgence to some extent—but I cannot readily think of a better way to describe this effort. Mind you, this is not to suggest that it is a bad film—it is practically bursting with delights in every scene and I enjoyed it pretty much from the first frame to the last. Then again, I have pretty much been on the Anderson bandwagon ever since coming out of a screening of his debut, “Bottle Rocket,” and realizing that I had seen the work of a true original, a notion that was confirmed with his very next film, the coming-of-age masterpiece “Rushmore,” so I am clearly down for what has become his increasingly insular cinematic approach. That said, I must admit that those who are not already avowed fans of his work may well find it to be either baffling beyond belief, annoying beyond measure or some combination of both.

The title refers to a fictional publication based in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blase, staffed with expatriate writers working under the benevolent-but-avuncular guidance of editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), that began as an offshoot of the Liberty, Kansas newspaper run by Howitzer’s father and transformed into a “New Yorker”-style magazine. The conceit is that we are essentially watching a film version of the publication’s final issue—three feature stories, all recounted by their star authors, bracketed by a travel column and an obituary for both Howitzer and for the magazine itself, which, according to his will, is to cease publication upon his passing. The travel column by “cycling reporter” Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) kicks things off by taking us on a guided tour of Ennui-sur-Blase and how it has changed over the years, focusing less on the beauty of the area and more on the various seedy creatures—human and otherwise—that currently populate the place. If you have any questions about whether the film is going to be for you or not, this opening segment will serve as an ideal litmus test—if you find this section to be too twee or precious for its own good (and I know some people who might raise a red flag based solely on the name “Herbsaint Sazerac” alone), you should probably bail right then and there because it is going to be like that throughout.

The first feature story, recounted by art correspondent J.K.L Berensen (Tlda Swinton sporting a look that is odd even by her generally outre standards), is entitled “The Concrete Masterpiece” and revolves around Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), an inmate serving time at the Ennui prison after committing a brutal double homicide. While there, he takes an art class under the supervision of stoic guard Simone (Lea Seydoux), who quickly becomes both his artistic muse and the model for a series of abstract nude paintings that catch the eye of Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), an art dealer serving time for tax evasion. Cadazio may not quite understand Rosenthaler’s modern art but he recognizes that he has an original artistic voice that could easily be transformed into a viable commercial product. With the help of his uncles (Bob Balaban and Henry Winkler), Cadazio makes the unsuspecting Rosenthaler into the biggest new name in the art world and even arranges for a number of wealthy patrons of the arts, the most prominent being Upshur “Maw” Clampette (Lois Smith ), to come to the prison to attend the unveiling of Rosenthaler’s latest work and bid on it, leading to a conclusion worthy of O. Henry.

The second story is “Revisions to a Manifesto,” a goofball take on the May, 1968 student protests as recounted by the esteemed Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). As she observes a group of students as they attempt to overthrow authority and, perhaps more importantly, gain access to the girl’s dormitory, Krementz constantly reminds those she encounters of the importance of journalistic neutrality. However, she doesn’t quite follow through with that approach and not only falls into bed with revolutionary leader/chess master Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet) but even helps to rewrite his manifesto. The final tale is “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” in which food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffry Wright) starts off doing a profile of celebrated police station chef Nescaffier (Stephen Park) and winds up getting sucked into a much bigger and weirder story when a group of miscreants kidnap the son of the commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) and demand the release of an incarcerated underworld accountant known as The Abacus (Willem Dafoe).

To say that “The French Dispatch” is jam-packed would be the closest thing that it has to something that could be an understatement. In the previous couple of paragraphs, for example, you will have seen enough famous names to qualify as an all-star cast. However, that is only scratching the surface of the star power on display as I haven’t even mentioned the presence of such personalities as Christoph Waltz, Cecile de France, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman and Anjelica Huston, who serves as the film’s narrator. In a perverse move, many of these appearances prove to be little more than cameos and indeed, in the case of the likes of Waltz and Moss, you could almost literally blink and miss their fleeting turns entirely. There are so many famous faces on display that there are times when the whole thing feels like a cross between “The Cannonball Run” and the red carpet at the Independent Spirit Awards and the ones that wind up standing out are the ones with the most distinct personalities—people like Murray, Del Toro, Seydoux, McDomand and Wright. Oddly enough, one of the most striking turns comes from one of the least-known members of the cast—French actress Lyna Khoudri, who is pretty mesmerizing as one of the student revolutionaries in the second story who is constantly butting heads with Chalamet’s character while trying to overlook her obvious attraction to him.

Because it consists of a series of different short narratives, “The French Dispatch” has the feel of an anthology film, a format that has always been notoriously difficult to pull off successfully because it requires viewers to be jerked from one narrative to another, a move that more often than not leaves them feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Since Anderson is the sole guiding light for this venture, the shifts are not quite as jarring as usual but could prove to be frustrating to some. While I enjoyed them all to some degree, my favorite by a long shot is “The Concrete Masterpiece,” a delightful meditation of lust, regret and artistic expression that reminded me at times of “Life Lessons,” Martin Scorsese’s brilliant contribution to the anthology project “New York Stories,” and which is the one tale that I would have liked to seen expanded into an entire feature in its own right. “Revisions to a Manifesto” is probably the slightest of the three but the loopy homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s hymns to young love and revolution still has a lot of charm to spare. “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” is the goofiest, a riot of dramatic and stylistic excess that at one point bursts in animation in order to full capture an exceptionally wild car chase.

That said, even though I liked all the stories, the fact that Anderson has given us a bunch a short narratives instead of one full feature may leave some viewers feeling both overstuffed and oddly undernourished afterwards, like eating a ten-course meal consisting entirely of the most elaborate desserts imaginable. Like his best films—which I would suggest are “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenebaums” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”—it has wit, whimsy and style to spare and then some. The difference is that those films also had a real and recognizable emotional core to them that built to moments that cut through the quirkiness and had a real impact—scenes like the meeting of Max Fisher’s father and mentor in “Rushmore” or the moment in “The Royal Tenebaums” where Chas (Ben Stiller) confesses to his wayward father (Gene Hackman) “I’ve had a rough year, dad.” There isn’t really much of that here in any of the various stories—“The Concrete Masterpiece” comes closest and that is almost entirely due to the soulful presences of Del Toro and Seydoux—and while that doesn’t necessarily hurt the stories as they are unfolding, it does mean that when the film finally does try to reach for some greater emotional heft, as it does during its denouement eulogizing both Howitzer and the literary tradition represented by publications like “The New Yorker,” it just doesn’t quite come off as hoped.

And yet, as ten-course meals of elaborately designed cinematic desserts go, “The French Dispatch” goes down quite easily. Now there is an excellent chance that this might be because the pet obsessions that Anderson is working with here—French culture, long-form journalism and Lea Seydoux among the most prominent—happen to be among my own personal jams as well. Beyond that, I had a lot of fun enjoying the array of visual tricks that he fills the proceedings with—from alternating between black-and-white and color cinematography to practically freezing the frame to allow us to drink in especially evocative images like a moment from an unfolding prison riot to a closeup of Saoirse Ronan’s eyes—and there are a lot of very funny bits of business and lines of dialogue, the most notable of which is surely Howitzer’s key editorial maxim, “Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.” Besides, at a time when too many films, especially of the blockbuster variety, demonstrate virtually no stamp of individuality at all, it seems a bit churlish to critique one for having too much of a singular touch to it. “The French Dispatch” is ultimately a curio in the end but it is one with a lot of charm that Anderson’s fans should lap up like a particularly sweet and delectable scoop of French vanilla on a chaude journee d’ete.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33472&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/20/21 18:59:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 New York Film Festival For more in the 2021 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 London Film Festival For more in the 2021 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2021 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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  22-Oct-2021 (R)
  DVD: 28-Dec-2021



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