Monday, December 6, 2021

In the Reels: ‘The French Dispatch’ tributes journalists

Cameron Kaercher

The cinema of Wes Anderson can be a divisive one and an alienating one, but also a deeply emotional experience. Anderson’s emphasis on symmetrical framing is an essential part of his storytelling. 

His films feel like storybooks or dreams sometimes. It isn’t realistic, it is better than realism. It is a personal vision that has been parodied, paid homage to but never recreated perfectly.

Anderson’s latest feature is “The French Dispatch.” The title refers to the American magazine covering the politics, culture and revolutions of the fictional French town, Ennui-sur-Blasé. This translates to “Boredom-upon-Apathy.”

The story itself is divided into four articles written for the dispatch. Owen Wilson as Herbsaint Sazerac writes the introductory, “The Cycling Reporter,” as he briefly introduces the town. Tilda Swinton as J.K.L. Berensen tells the story of “The Concrete Masterpiece,” an art installation created by a violent convict played by Benicio Del Toro. 

In “Revisions to a Manifesto,” Lucinda Krementz, played by Frances McDormand, profiles a student revolutionary played by Timothee Chalamet. Finally, Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright recounts a tumultuous dinner he shared with Ennui’s commissaire of police, played by Mathieu Amalric, in “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.”

Clearly, there are a lot of stories to get through. Anderson’s plotting is as swift as ever. Through his usually meticulous direction, each shot has so many details and expressions that not everything needs to be spelled out. Working with four-time collaborating editor Andrew Weisblum, Anderson keeps the pacing high for this less than two-hour film. 

The film was also shot on 35mm by another Anderson regular, Robert D. Yeoman. Every frame looks gorgeous with the pastel colors Anderson uses regularly. The unpaved streets of Ennui are also gritty and lend some grounding to this fanciful story. 

For the first time, aside from his short films, Anderson shoots in black and white and the results are gorgeous. Each chapter of the story is lucky enough to get a scene in black and white which fuels the theme of looking back in time, even if these events are fictional.

The lighting is gorgeous and never obeys any strict rules of when to use black and white and when to use full color. All creative choices are fueled by emotion and what makes sense for the shot, not even the scene as a whole.

Previous films from Wes Anderson have been about nostalgia and some of its dangerous trappings. “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” had a protagonist who had fallen out of the limelight and was trying to capture fame again. “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Anderson’s previous live-action film, had multiple layers of narration. Each narrator would be trying to recollect the now-defunct and titular hotel. “The French Dispatch” may not live up to “Grand Budapest,” but the film is great all the same.

For anyone interested in Wes Anderson’s career, this may be a fine film to start off on. It contains all the director’s hallmarks, he has definitely not given up his style to chase mainstream success. If the style feels alienating at first, stick with it, because getting to the end of a Wes Anderson film will always deliver an emotional climax, and “The French Dispatch” does that exquisitely.

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