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Thursday September 29th

Column: “The French Dispatch” is Wes Anderson’s ode to filmmaking, and to himself

From left, Bill Murray, Wally Wolodarsky and Jeffrey Wright in the film "The French Dispatch." Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/TNS.
Buy Photos From left, Bill Murray, Wally Wolodarsky and Jeffrey Wright in the film "The French Dispatch." Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/TNS.

There’s a reason why people are drawn to film. 

It’s not like other mediums, where you’re limited to the ink on the page or the time constraints of commercial breaks and rigid schedules. 

With movies, you have a truly blank canvas — one on which you can express yourself fully and stretch boundaries to fully capture your artistic vision.

Wes Anderson did exactly that with “The French Dispatch.” 

In a concept that’s as inspired as it is bold, the movie tells the story of the French outpost of a Kansas-based magazine and is broken up into sections of the magazine itself. 

After a local color section highlighting the fictional setting of the film, Ennui (which, cleverly, translates to “boredom”), the film’s first short story highlights the artwork of a prisoner, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), and the efforts of art dealer Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody) to showcase his work to the world while behind bars. The film then quickly turns to coverage of a student protest in Ennui followed by a food critic’s experience with a police chef who makes meals for officers.

Each of these segments is narrated as though they’re articles being read to you directly from the page by their writers who themselves are being shown on the screen midway through the act of reporting. They’re also punctuated with advice from Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the magazine’s editor, on how to make the story even better. 

The events of the past are often depicted in black and white, with those in the present being shown in color. This convention is often broken, but always very purposefully — panning to color to highlight the beauty and novelty of Rosenthaler’s artwork or shifting to black and white during an introspective monologue by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) as he grapples with loneliness and discovering his identity. 

The film’s cuts are quick, edited to shift between individuals speaking as though to narrow the focus onto their dialogue even more. Painstaking attention to detail is paid to every single set-piece, a masterclass in production that transports you to a French village that doesn’t even exist. 

Each performance showcased in the movie is effortless and natural, like conversations being had by people who have known each other for years — which, given that it’s a cast essentially made up of Wes Anderson’s friends, they really have. 

The chemistry between Benicio del Toro and Adrien Brody is phenomenal, with even the smallest back-and-forth between the two striking up moments of comedic gold. Timothée Chalamet and Frances McDormand were brilliant, too, delicately balancing the strange relationship between a student protest leader and the writer who’s become uncomfortably close to the story. 

Yet, the movie’s standout performance was by Jeffrey Wright, whose pensive, heartfelt portrayal of writer Roebuck Wright provided the film with additional emotional depth and captured thoughtful, universal insights into the minds of struggling artists everywhere. 

And that’s what makes this movie stand out, at least in my opinion: its heart.

Anderson sacrificed the ability to put together a coherent story by splitting it into three very loosely related vignettes, giving himself a lot less time to showcase the talent of his cast and to develop the characters they’re portraying and the different settings they occupy. 

Yet, this sacrifice is so clearly done for the sake of artistic creativity that it’s almost impossible to imagine this movie without it. 

Instead of making a movie that others would consider great by conventional standards, he went out of his way to take risks that could have very well sunk the ship he spent years building. And he had fun doing it, being able to bring all of his friends and even make new ones in the process.

The movie inspires the joy and creativity that draws me to film. It’s inventive, visually striking and emotionally touching. And it’s surprisingly and almost inexplicably funny. 

This is a Wes Anderson movie — it’s arguably his most “Wes Anderson” movie. But it’s also a celebration of all of the hard work he’s put into making himself one of the greatest directors and screenwriters of our generation. 

I love this movie because it not only perfectly encapsulates why Wes Anderson loves movies, but it highlights all of the reasons why I fell in love with them, too. And for that, I’m incredibly grateful.



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