The French Dispatch

Bill Murray as the editor of the Dispatch

A middle finger to the haters, The French Dispatch finds an unrepentant Wes Anderson doubling down on the whimsy and pastiche of films like The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. There’s more. An artist’s statement, done early on in Owen Wilson’s laconic voiceover, vouchsafes that “All grand beauties withhold their deepest secrets.” Secrets? Deepest? Anderson is all surface, surely?

Anyhow, on to the Dispatch, which is an American magazine/supplement of New Yorker stripe run in the old way – a liberal institution headed by a steely eccentric (played by Bill Murray), never short of money and with enough space to contain at least one writer who doesn’t write, enough time on its hands to worry excessively about dangling participles and house style. People have expense accounts. The assignments are exotic. It’s fun. People are dying to work there. This is an indeterminate French city called Ennui-sur-Blasé, but is essentially mid-century Paris by way of Clochemerle, as depicted in Gabriel Chevallier’s sweetly satirical novel of sleepy, petty French France.

And from here, framing device established, Anderson gives us three separate stories, each fronted by a different writer. In the first Tilda Swinton gives us another of her big-teethed, big-haired eccentrics, relating the story of a jailbird (Benicio Del Toro) who becomes a great artist thanks to his muse, who’s also his jailer (Léa Seydoux), and a conman gallerist (Adrien Brody, best thing in the whole film). In the second Frances McDormand plays the writer of a piece about how she befriended and bedded a student radical (Timothée Chalamet) in an Andersonian version of 1968 Paris, before he ran off with a woman closer to his own age (Lyna Khoudri). And in the third Liev Schreiber plays a TV host talking a story out of a celebrated journalist (Jeffrey Wright) about how a chef of the molecular gastronomy school (Steve Park) – he’s called Nescaffier, which is the film’s only really good joke – thwarted a kidnapping.

The artist and his muse/jailer
The artist and his muse/jailer



It’s arch, all of it. At this point in Anderson’s career that kind of goes without saying. But the level of pastiche is what’s really remarkable, and the fact that Anderson never, ever stops laying it on. In one micro-scene that’s emblematic of the whole thing, he fast-cuts between various recipients of a radio broadcast, each one of them listening to it on a different mid-century transistor radio straight from kitsch corner. Inside each doll another doll, fractalling away in a pastiche universe stretching off to the limits of time.

Shot in that dead flat, absolutely shadowless way by Robert Yeoman, who’s been with Anderson ever since his debut, 1996’s Bottle Rocket, the effect is Carl Theodor Dreyer meets a mid-century-modern furniture catalogue, every single aspect considered, every item teased and tweezed. Everything just so.

As with the films of Peter Greenaway, there’s an obsession with symmetry and a tendency for the elaborate production design (by Adam Stockhausen) to become the star of the show. The frame outshines the painting it contains. The “movie” stops moving.

If there are “deepest secrets” then it’s Anderson’s abiding love of the mid 20th century. When the US venerated French culture, and Ernest Hemingway might be found drinking with Lee Miller in the Café de Flore. It’s the era of the triumph of democracy, of pop culture, New Journalism, continental philosophy and the European arthouse movie. Boomers might recognise themselves.

The cameos are fun – Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban, Christoph Waltz, Mathieu Amalric, Cécile de France, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, some on screen for mere seconds.

To reach for another comparison, it’s Jacques Tati without the jokes and if, like me, you’re not a Tati fan, it’s a slog to watch. 45 minutes from the end I was wondering if the dry-humping of the picturesque past was ever going to stop. I was never entirely sure if it was meant to be an entertaining whole, or just a series of brilliantly executed “sketches”? Like a dinner of exquisite individual courses that never really hangs together as a whole, The French Dispatch is easier to admire than to enjoy.



The French Dispatch – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2022









Nomadland

Fern has a cigarette


In January 2011 the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, shut down. By July of the same year the town’s zip code had been discontinued. Nomadland makes personal a phenomenon that’s been going on for decades but has accelerated since the big crash of 2008. Of displaced older blue-collar workers who lose their homes and jobs and take to the road, travelling around the US working at any job they can, living out of cars, vans and recreational vehicles, a new nomad class.

The film is based on the 2018 book by Jessica Bruder, an extended piece of non-fiction reporting detailing the phenomenon, and stars Frances McDormand as Fern – the only person in the film not using their own name – one of the migrating horde of nomads who travel from one Amazon dispatch centre (“good money”, says Fern) to another, one seasonal harvest to the next, sharing (a bit), looking out for each other (a bit) and generally making the most of what to many people would be an invitation to lay down and die.

The film is the bastard child of reality TV and features three distinct components, skilfully blended together by director Chloé Zhao, who also did the editing, which on its own would win her buckets of awards in a just world. At its most straightforward this is a documentary and the people we see are actual RV-dwelling nomads. On top of that is a layer of “structured reality” – the most direct lift from reality TV – consisting of McDormand’s interactions with members of the nomad community. And on top of that is a layer of “real acting”. It is all so well blended together, in fact, that when David Strathairn enters the movie as a potential love interest I spent a good time thinking “that nomad guy looks a lot like David Strathairn”. His name – Dave – not having alerted me. Doh.

Anyone expecting a Grapes of Wrath political message has come to the wrong film. Nomadland stays largely out of the political arena, possibly out of an astute realisation that banging the drum just doesn’t work, and partly as a reflection on the nomads themselves – a doughty bunch of resilient self-starters who are determined to hang on to their dignity even in defeat.

Fern with a lamp at dusk
Dusk falls



Bob Wells is as near as we get. An activist, YouTuber, founder of Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual gathering of “The Tribe”, Bob’s message – capitalism is going down and the have-nots need to band together – is as close as you’re going to get to socialism, a word never mentioned. The Rendezvous is often referred to as the Burning Man for retirees and perhaps the main shock of watching the film is the age of all these people living hand-to-mouth lives at a time of life when you might expect them to be putting their feet up and buying the grandkids ice cream.

At this point (February 2021) McDormand looks like a shoo-in for the Oscar, which is often handed out in Daniel Day Lewis style to the person who has done the most work rather than given the best performance – living in her van for months, she has clearly thrown herself at this project, though has also pointed out in interviews that at a certain point she gave up the van-dwelling. It was just too tough. All that to one side, it is a remarkable performance, not least because, in order to pass muster with non-actors, real people, McDormand has had to throw away all that screencraft – the stuff Michael Caine goes on about in his acting masterclasses about which eye to turn to the camera etc. She passes.

Being frozen in winter and boiled in summer, earning a pittance for working in shitty jobs, Nomadland sounds like a wallow in misery but it is determined not to go there – the landscape, the wildlife, the swimming in crystal clear streams, the simple things in life are all extolled to the max. And beyond.

And yet. The good-to-be-alive stuff seems also like a feint, a case of protesting too much. There is a sense of great sadness throughout. Fern has lost her husband, job, hometown and way of life, and this story repeats with variations for all the nomads we meet – like 75-year-old Swankie, cheerfully on the road yet dying of cancer.

Where’s the anger? Hiding, I think, that mournful piano of Ludovico Einaudi nudging the viewer beyond feelings of powerless empathy and towards bigger, more political questions. Or that, I am guessing, is the hope.





Nomadland: Surviving American in the 21st Century – the book that inspired the movie at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2021




Friends with Money

Jennifer Aniston as a French maid

 

 

Having struggled to escape the long shadow of Friends, Jennifer Aniston ends up in a film with Friends in the title, playing the singleton with three married couples as chums. Nicole Holofcener’s follow-up to 2001’s Lovely & Amazing walks the same line – it’s a gentle comedy exploring human foibles. Then, families were the subject, here it’s rich people with first world problems, metrosexual tastes and lives obsessively focused on themselves. It is quite a cast – with Jennifer Aniston at its centre, playing the only one of this gang with no wealth and no love life, the only one who has to do shitty jobs for a living, including working as a cleaner, in full French maid regalia – apparently there is a constituency for Aniston dressed thus. Meanwhile, when she’s not dusting crannies, Aniston’s character has to put with the likes of Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack making sisterly clucking “ah, bless” noises. There’s the feeling of the brick wrapped in velvet in this comedy of mismatched power relations. No belly laughs but plenty enough to keep you grinning in an “I recognise that” kind of way.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Friends with Money – at Amazon

 

 

 

Wonder Boys

Robert Downey Jr, Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire

 

 

 

Michael Douglas plays the college prof with one book under his belt and a smart-ass student (Tobey Maguire) about to steal his thunder with his debut novel, which is going to be glorious, headline-grabbing, sexy, everything Douglas once was but now just isn’t. However, this fading wonder boy does still have enough residual kudos to make him a honeypot for a girl (Katie Holmes) who’s attractive dark-haired and far too young for him (and what a nudge nudge that was at the time). He’s also having an affair with his boss (Frances McDormand). And, on the weekend of frenzy that we catch up with him, he’s being pursued by his drug-monster editor, played by Robert Downey Jr (more good casting), who’s wondering how much longer his author is going to keep him waiting for his book. It’s been seven years. In short, Douglas is over 50 and has both the face and the life he deserves.

When this film first hit the screens, some critics were aghast that Douglas could happily play someone so unlike the Michael Douglas who’d been stalking movies since 1987’s Fatal Attraction – the alpha male busting with testosterone of Wall Street, Basic Instinct or The Game. And didn’t he look old. And dishevelled. But one of the real strengths of Douglas is indifference to what others think (Remember the hoo-haa when Falling Down came out?). But then maybe when you’ve got the Oscar, the dynasty and the girl, the opinions of others aren’t worth an awful lot.

Director Curtis Hanson’s first film since LA Confidential is funny, zappy and emotional. It’s an adult film in the best sense of the word – driven by character, comfortable with what it is, rich and complex. There are plenty of campus novels but not so many campus movies. Wonder Boys helps address the imbalance.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Wonder Boys –  Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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