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


Paul Atreides with his mother, Lady Jessica

“Dreams are messages from the deep,” it says right up at the front of Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation of Dune, possibly a nod to David Lynch, whose hazy 1984 version crashed and burned in spectacular, almost sci-fi fashion.

Other nods – the design of the stillsuits and the sandworms for instance – also hark back to Lynch, a magnanimous gesture on the part of Villeneuve who, after Arrival and Bladerunner 2049, has nothing to prove in the realm of sci-fi.

Lynch was trying to make his version of Frank Herbert’s novel a David Lynch film, dreamy and out there, but his film also tugged in the opposite direction, towards the mainstream Star Wars-y sci-fi vision of his producers. Neither ended up getting what they wanted. Villeneuve, by contrast, can do exactly what he wants at this point in his career, having not made an artistic or financial mis-step since his mainstream breakthrough with 2010’s Incendies (though Enemy came close).

In short, Lynch’s is a mess, Villeneuve’s is a masterpiece, and there are a mass of reasons for both that go beyond the skill, talent and vision of either film-maker.

The story here remains the same – it’s the future and out in the galaxy somewhere the Emperor is worrying that he’s losing his grip on power. So he indulges in a bit of divide and rule with the two noble houses most likely to threaten him, by getting them to fight over a desert planet called Arrakis, source of Spice, the most valuable commodity in the known Universe, a substance with both practical and magical qualities. Not only is Arrakis (known as Dune) a sandy wastland, it’s infested with sandworms, predatory monsters that erupt from beneath the surface to devour whatever has disturbed them.

Josh Brolin and Oscar Isaac
Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) with Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac)

On one side (boo) we have the Harkonnen, led by the fat and uncouth Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (almost unrecognisable Stellan Skarsgård), on the other (hooray), the slender and refined Atreides clan, headed by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), accompanied by his svelte consort Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and his son and heir Paul (Timothée Chalamet).

Paul is the focus, since this is a Jesus-Buddha-Mohammad-Luke Skywalker-Neo story of the callow youth overcoming obstacles and growing into a prophet/master of his own destiny, and Chalamet, it must be said, is perfectly cast as Paul, the proud yet delicate looks of the Renaissance princeling being ideal for what Villeneuve is laying down.

When Lynch made his Dune in 1984, Star Wars (which had borrowed so much from Frank Herbert’s book) was only seven years in the past. I’m guessing, but Lynch, possibly keen to avoid the charge of plagiarism, fought shy of leaning too closely into George Lucas’s vision. All these years later, Villeneuve has no such qualms and goes all in on the Star Wars ethos, borrowing its swagger, its “hey, kid” camaraderie and, to an extent, its look, especially in the many sandy sequences filmed in Jordan, the stand-in for Arrakis.

It’s got a medieval Game of Thrones glam thing going on too, and its narrative joys are similar – there is no really strong plot pulling us through, rather we’re expected to enjoy rolling around in the lore.

This Dune is all about world-building on the most massive of scales, yet there’s a fanatical attention to detail throughout, most obviously in the various flying vehicles, the cityscape on Arrakis and the sandworms (nod to Lynch). Villeneuve’s pique when Warners decided to stream it on HBO (Covid played a role here) is entirely understandable. He’d shot it for IMAX and though I’m not one of those “you really should see this in the cinema” wonks, for maximum effect here’s one you really should see in the cinema.

A visceral, spectacular experience that only gets to roughly the halfway point in Frank Herbert’s story, the rest of it coming in part two. “This is only the beginning,” says Chani (played by the much-trailed Zendaya, who’s clearly coming into her own in the next instalment). And you believe her. Please don’t make part two be like The Matrix Reloaded.

Dune – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021