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









Moonrise Kingdom

Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton and Bruce Willis in Moonrise Kingdom

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

1 August

 

First Scout camp, Brownsea Island, 1907

On this day in 1907, a camp organised by British national hero Lieutenant-General Baden-Powell to test the ideas he’d laid out in his book, Scouting for Boys, opened on Brownsea Island, just off the south coast of the United Kingdom. It lasted a week, and was made up of 20 or 21 boys of varying social backgrounds who spent their time camping, learning woodcraft, chivalry, lifesaving and patriotism. Each day started at 6am with Baden-Powell blowing a reveille on a kudu horn, after which the boys would have cocoa, do exercise, raise the flag and say their prayers. At 8am they had breakfast, followed by whatever subject had been chosen for that day, lunch, a siesta and then the afternoon activity. At 5pm the day would end with games, supper and a campfire, followed by prayers and bed. If they were lucky Baden-Powell would regale them with stories from his Africa campaigns. Out of this camp, deemed a success, and Baden-Powell’s book, the Scouting movement was born.

 

 

 

Moonrise Kingdom (2012, dir: Wes Anderson)

If the world falls into two camps – those who love Wes Anderson and those who don’t – include me firmly in the anti camp. But I make an exception for Moonrise Kingdom, which is a truly sweet story of young love tricked out in Anderson’s usual whimsy, except this time not to the point where your teeth hurt. It’s tempting to suggest that it’s the presence of Roman Coppola as Anderson’s co-writer that makes it such a winner. But then Coppola co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited, and that had all the worst Anderson traits – too arch, no plot, self-absorbed characters. Whatever it is, what the duo do here works, maybe because they put the usual deadpan dialogue into the mouths of babes, and the disjunction is so odd that it makes everything these two – the boy scout and the pubescent girl who run away together and mobilise an entire island to find them – sound as if Noel Coward himself had written their lines and given them elocution lessons. And the effect is charming and funny. Potentially irritating, admittedly, but it never seems to tip over.
Anderson also seems to be soft-pedalling the eccentricity when it comes to both key settings – one a household in 1965, where reading, classical music, the devouring of the daily newspaper are all normal pursuits of children who haven’t yet been got at by the counterculture; the other a boy scout camp ruled over benignly by Edward Norton. Anderson shoots it all lovingly too, warm and yellow, every scene gussied up in the most extraordinarily fastidious way. Clothes, furniture, decor, it’s all been thought about right down to the last hem.
The warmth spills over into the casting, though a cool look at the names in any other context – Norton, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton – and you might be expecting something hard-boiled, difficult or cynical. Norton’s casting as a scout master is inspired, and as with the too-earnest teenagers, throws up a “does not compute” error in the viewer that puts a smile on the face every time he turns up in his long shorts. There’s an even better long-shorts piece of casting later on… but I won’t ruin it. As for the rest, McDormand is Bill Murray’s wife and mother of the missing boy. She’s secretly having affair with local hayseed cop Bruce Willis, who at some point has to inform the local social services – in the shape of a character known only as Social Services (Tilda Swinton) – that a boy scout has disappeared and his foster parents don’t want him back.
A story of missing runaway kids and a storm coming in off the Atlantic is potentially the highest of high drama, or the shlockiest. But Anderson doesn’t play it either way. As with the against-the-grain casting he’s up to something, taking scenes familiar from a thousand films and shaping them anew. Hence that amazing moment when young Sam (Jared Gilman) is struck full-on by a bolt of lightning, thrown to the ground, and then immediately jumps up, cheerily says, “I’m OK,” and just carries on running. No one could survive that sort of electrical zap without the help of magic, surely? But magic is what Anderson, in his own unique way, is about.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Any film with Bill Murray…
  • Harvey Keitel’s best cameo since Pulp Fiction
  • Robert Yeoman’s cinematography
  • A tender love story

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Moonrise Kingdom – Watch it now at Amazon