The French Dispatch (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir.  Wes Anderson, Germany/US, 2021, 109 mins, in English and some French with subtitles

Cast:  Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright

Review by Carol Allen

Wes Anderson’s love letter to The New Yorker magazine and to old France is totally mad, totally original, delightful and unpredictable. It’s also surreal in places and often very funny.   I loved it.

The fancy of the film is The French Dispatch of the title, a fictional American magazine, which has a distinct resemblance to The New Yorker.  This publication is though edited in the French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé –  translation Boredom on (the river named) Disenchanted.  Oh surely not!  Both the town and its river are “charmantes”.

When the magazine’s devoted Kansas-born editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) dies unexpectedly, the editorial team gather to share their affectionate memories for his obituary. The result is four cinematic magazine features in his memory.  A quick travelogue piece introducing us to the less salubrious parts of the city, hoisted by the cycling correspondent;  a lecture from the fine arts specialist about a mad and murderous local artist;  a look back at student revolt in the sixties and a thrilling tale of detection, kidnapping and haute cuisine. 

In some ways the film is reminiscent in style of the Theatre of the Absurd in the sixties – but in a cinematic way.    Readers of The New Yorker will probably find all kinds of cultural references in it but for me, who isn’t a regular reader although I get the style reference, it is a series of amusing surprises.

The film was shot in Angoulême with many sequences filmed in a temporary film studio created in a former felt factory – some of it on rather gorgeous sets reproducing the old style France, which still existed in the sixties and seventies but is now largely no more.  Other devices Anderson uses from time to time are formal tableaux and almost random switches from colour to black and white and back again. 

Anderson has gathered an eclectic cast of top drawer actors – Benicio del Toro is brilliant as Rosenthaler, the psycho artist, along with Léa Seydoux as his prison officer muse and lover, while Adrian Brody brings a touch of George Raft to the role of his sly fellow prisoner/agent, who bribes the guards with marrons glacés.   Tilda Swinton as the magazine’s art specialist frames the piece with a slyly comic lecture on Rosenthaler’s bizarre life and work.

 Less successful but still amusing is the third piece with Frances McDormand as the earnest journalist who get involved with the youth protest movement of the sixties in the person of student Timothée Chalamet.

The final section features Mathieu Amalric as a gourmet police chief, whose son is kidnapped, with Jeffrey Wright as the correspondent with a typographic memory, who is recalling the whole story in detail – his best role since he played the artist Basquiat in 1996.  This section also switches to animation at one point for a glorious car chase sequence.

 And whatever you do, stay for the end credits.   They are a bit glorious too.