Wes Anderson works his magic again
‘The French Dispatch’ a delightful ode to literary past
In this second year of COVID and seven years since Wes Anderson’s last live-action film, “The French Dispatch,” the opening night offering at the Independent Film Festival Boston at the Brattle Theatre, is just what the doctor ordered. Some may argue that the film, which is an eccentric comedy about a magazine much like The New Yorker, is just the same old thing from Anderson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”). But the same old thing from this artist is sublime.
The film bills itself as an obituary, a travel guide and three features. Continuing their collaboration, Bill Murray, Anderson’s male muse, appears as the late Arthur Howitzer Jr., the editor-in-chief of the film’s fictional magazine, which started out as “Picnic,” a section of Howitzer’s father’s newspaper, the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Howitzer is also the subject
of the film’s obituary, having died of a heart attack in his office (his body is on his desk). The magazine is headquartered in the French city of Ennui-surBlase on the banks of the Blase River.
One section of the film is a tour of Ennui, its various neighborhoods for bootblackers, bricklayers, butchers, pickpockets, street walkers and gigolos. We meet rats, cats and rioting altar boys. Howitzer is seen in flashbacks, usually talking with and advising his writers.
The film, which is narrated by Anjelica Huston, is divided into sections with titles just like a magazine’s table of contents, and is a celebration of the era of writer-artists who are paid a living wage for their work and treated with kindness and respect. Howitzer has a sign over his door reading “No Crying.” It is strictly enforced. One of the talents Howitzer has cultivated is Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a James Baldwinlike polymath being interviewed by a talk show host (Liev Schreiber).
Two of the most important characters in the film are bestial, convict-painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) and his muse, prison guard and model Simone (Lea Seydoux, much livelier here than in “No Time to Die”). Rosenthaler becomes famous thanks to art dealer Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody). But he cannot get parole because he decapitated two bartenders in a rage. Rosenthaler wants to marry Simone. She insists she does not love him. We are told the story of Rosenthaler by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton with a hilarious American accent), who speaks before an appreciative Kansas audience about him.
In the Poetry and Politics section, we meet student revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet) of the 1968 student protests in Paris, who is having his way with the much older French Dispatch journalist Lucinda Krementz (Academy Award-winning Frances McDormand) in the blackand-white middle section.
“The French Dispatch” is a celebration of a generation of writers who weren’t overseen by corporations but by editors such as Harold Ross, William Shawn, George Plimpton, Harvey Kurtzman, Stan Lee and Diana Vreeland. “The French Dispatch” does not pretend that journalists are indifferent and therefore impartial. Krementz not only takes Zeffirelli’s virginity, she rewrites his manifesto.
In only one of Anderson’s displays of artistic ingenuity, “The French Dispatch” transforms in one section into a filmed play. Anderson is both a director and a magician in the tradition of the pioneering filmmaker Georges Melies, aka the First Wizard of Cinema. Anderson plays with the meaning of cinema itself.
“The French Dispatch” is his latest bit of spellbinding wizardry.
(“The French Dispatch” contains graphic nudity, sexual references and profanity.)