Monday January 17, 2022
Movie Review: The French Dispatch (2021)
“These were his people,” the narrator (Angelica Huston) says of the writers that Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), the Editor in Chief of The French Dispatch, coddles, coaxes and ferociously protects. This was early in the film, and as she said it I thought the same. My kind of people. My kind of topic. My kind of movie.
And then … not.
Where does the movie go wrong? It's divided into three different stories that are all part of a single issue of the titular publication, a New Yorker-like weekly that hails from, of all places, Liberty, Kansas, the near-geographic center of the United States. So rather than one complete film we get three or four shorts connected through this conceit. So that's part of it.
But where writer-director Wes Anderson truly loses me is with the writers. Or the writing. It doesn’t seem very New Yorker-like. It doesn’t seem very literary.
OK, I’ll just say it: They're lousy writers.
Here’s an example of the writing of The French Dispatch writers:
What sounds will punctuate the night? And what mysteries will they foretell? Perhaps the doubtful old maxim speaks true: All grand beauties withhold their deepest secrets.
Ick. It’s annunciated by Owen Wilson, who plays Herbsaint Sazerac, a writer who keeps riding his bicycle down Metro stairs and waxing philosophic and nostalgic about the seedier side of life in Ennui-sur-Blasé (great name), the French home of The French Dispatch. His section is the first in the magazine, and thus, after intros, including the death of Arthur Howitzer Jr., the first in the movie. It’s how we learn about the town before learning about its tales.
Sazerac is supposedly based on Joseph Mitchell of “Joe Gould’s Secret” fame, who often wrote about the seedier side of life in New York: its hoboes, bars, rats. Except Mitchell was a great, great writer:
Joe Gould was an odd and penniless and unemployable little man who came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for over thirty-five years.
Is that unfair? Picking a classic opener? Here’s a less well-known lede:
Within a few blocks of virtually every large newspaper in the United States except The Christian Science Monitor there is a saloon haunted by reporters, a saloon which also functions as a bank, as a sanitarium, as a gymnasium, and sometimes as a home.
I was expecting more of that in “The French Dispatch” and we didn't come close. I suppose it’s a lot to ask of Wes Anderson: to recreate three or four great writers and their styles, or imagine three or four great writers and their styles. But it’s the one detail he doesn’t get right. And it might be the most important.
These are the three main writers and their stories:
- J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), who gives a lecture on Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), a convicted murderer and celebrated modern artist, and Rosenthaler's relationship with his prison guard/muse Simone (Léa Seydoux) and the art dealer who recognizes his genius, Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody).
- Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), based on Mavis Gallant, who is the no-bullshit chronicler of young revolutionaries Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri) during a student uprising in Ennui-sur-Blasé.
- Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), apparently some combo of James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling (and Capote for his memory recall?), who recites verbatim his story about the kidnapping of the child of the police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric), as well as the haute cuisine of his chef, Nescaffier (Stephen Park), which is designed to be eaten by cops.
The first was the longest and a lot of fun. Not sure who Berensen is based on, but at the lectern Swinton gives the writer a Barbara Walters-type speech impediment.
It’s the second story where I lost energy. Mavis Gallant reported on the 1968 student uprisings in Paris, one of many such uprisings during that turbulent year, and most of the world took it all so seriously. Gallant did not. She viewed the student revolutionaries with a jaundiced eye. “Did they really think that they could destroy capitalism by setting the Bourse on fire?” she wrote, among other things. Of course, McDormand is the perfect choice for such a no-bullshit writer; the problem is the rest of it. The kids in the story are obviously just kids. They’re play acting. They’re revolutionaries in the way that Max Fischer in “Rushmore” is a playwright— Chalamet’s Zeffirelli in particular would rather play chess and smoke a pipe that storm any Bastille. Hell, their slogan is “Les enfants son grognons”: The children are grumpy. They know it. So using McDormand to pop their pretensions, such as they are, is like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. What was revelatory for Gallant’s readers is obvious to Anderson’s viewers.
The third story restores some balance. It's absurd in a way that has motion. (The second section was also too static.) There are cops and robbers and chases. And Roebuck seems a better writer than the others. Or maybe his prose sounds better coming from Jeffrey Wright.
Plus it's poignant. The standoff between kidnappers and cops ends when Chef Nescaffier is sent to cook a meal for the kidnappers, but he’s made to taste the food first. He does even though it's poisoned. Most of the bad guys die, he and his strong stomach survive, and afterwards, to Wright, he tries to describe the new and piquant flavor of the poison. I love that bit: this new and exciting taste which is deadly. And then we get the best dialogue of the movie:
Wright: I admire your bravery, lieutenant.
Nescaffier: I’m not brave. I just wasn’t in the mood to be a disappointment to everybody. [pause] I’m a foreigner, you know.
Wright: This city is full of us, isn’t it? I’m one myself.
Nescaffier: Seeking something missing. Missing something left behind.
First, I loved the line about not being in the mood to be a disappointment to everyone. Feels like it’s true of half the decisions I’ve made in my life. In fact, initially, I thought the follow-up about being a foreigner was an intrusion, since the earlier line is universal and the foreigner line is not. It muddied the waters, I thought. But that line sets up the rest of it, which is profound. And it's universal again: “Seeking something missing, missing something left behind.” That’s all of us moving through life. All of us are seeking the missing thing; all of us are missing the things we’ve left behind. Maybe it’s universal because, in a sense, in this existence, we’re all foreigners. We all just wound up here. The world is full of us, isn’t it?
I hope “The French Dispatch” is one of those movies that gets better on the second viewing. There will certainly be a lot to notice. This is just a sample from the end credits: its New Yorker-y type covers:
What fun. Anderson has a romantic view of all of it—of editors and writers and caring greatly about the written word. Most of that world has long gone away. Writing is now content, and the people who make the decisions aren’t exactly Arthur Howitzer, Jr. But The New Yorker lives. Subscribe.