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Click, clack, ding: ‘The French Dispatch’ is chaotic, typewritten delight

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OCTOBER 22, 2021

Grade: 3.5/5.0

There are two filmmakers that make such particular use of space that they leave the impression the screen is infinitely fillable. One is Roy Andersson, a Swede with a cinema that plays as a slow emergence from darkness. The other is Wes Anderson, whose cinema is so well known it won’t be regurgitated here. His latest film, “The French Dispatch,” has such an antic zeal it more closely resembles the tedious infinity of numbers — 0.1, 0.01 and so on — than the scope of his past features.

So it is that Anderson’s film may be up for the craft categories this season. Most people seeing “The French Dispatch” probably know at least one thing about Anderson’s delayed 10th feature (he just needed his Cannes debut): There are quite a few strands to the story, which draws its inspiration from the pages of The New Yorker. The most intriguing anticipation for one familiar with Anderson’s films, as well as where the director’s aesthetic stumbles, is how the anthology comes together.

Anderson, a diehard New Yorker aficionado, assembles his movie like the magazine. It’s intricately organized and moderately pretentious: The first few minutes tell viewers all about the death of Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), an editor known for his precision as much as his prickly nature. And then it’s off to Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) introducing the audience to the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blase in a cinematic “Shouts and Murmurs,” a sequence completed by moving set pieces and a couple of bike crashes.

The rest of the story spins all over the place — set with verbal jousting, fisticuffs and a swirl of taste — and it’s really the remaining three chapters, features of subject and author, cut together. Anderson splits them up with soft fades to black. There’s J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton, in the film’s and her own comedic high) who, lecturing her story of an imprisoned artist (Benicio del Toro), accomplishes the most extraordinarily hilarious pronunciation of “o.”

Fade to: Vive la révolution, the one the kids started. It’s the ’60s or ’70s, and Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) is covering a students’ protest. McDormand is wonderful — and later makes the ending — but we must get to her counterpart in this story. Enter Timothée Chalamet’s Zeffirelli, a leader of the students’ protest.

The most spectacular part of “The French Dispatch” is its complete deployment of Anderson’s aesthetic. This is his love letter to literary journalism. In this melange of stars, including Willem Dafoe rotating in for a line and a look, Chalamet is an outlier. Each of these actors, such as Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright, whose character is modeled after James Baldwin, inhabits Anderson’s aesthetic. Chalamet does not. He often pulls an angst and whine straight from “Ladybird” and “Call Me by Your Name,” and where the rest of the cast obeys a pull to Andersonian absurdity, Chalamet’s performance is flat.

This may be a fault of Anderson’s direction, a lost-in-chaos moment. His movie is tumultuous; characters flit in and out, which is not unusual for him, but they do so with such exertion they epitomize a reckless, buckled mode of filmmaking crashing into itself. Boiled down, the clicks and clacks are not dissimilar to the posters for his new movie, which are intensely packed yet capriciously spacious.

But at the end of the day, Anderson still delivers. “The French Dispatch” is a bit messy, but it’s an exhilarating bump of adrenaline. It is the most comforting movie in some time, a dose of a homey direction in which everything is laid out for viewers, the dialogue is charming and outrageous and things are just as they should be. It’s Anderson’s success that there are too many moments to remember, and it’s our pleasure, just like the journalists he resurfaces, to be surprised by them.

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].
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OCTOBER 21, 2021


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