By Zach Strohecker, Nov. 9, 2021

Three movies in one, “The French Dispatch” captured the Old World look matched with stories and characters from a romantic era. A tortured artist, the exuberant revolting youth and a kidnapping from a police station during a culinary review, all unfolded in the format of a weekly edition of the fictional publication, “The French Dispatch.” The newspaper served as a narrative anchor for these unrelated stories, binding them into a cohesive whole.

Unmistakably, from the first frame, this movie is a Wes Anderson film. His directorial stamp permeated every aspect. The film was shot in a taller aspect ratio, leaving black bars on the side of the screen. Closer to a natural field of vision, this is arguably a more comfortable perspective, and it sold the vintage spirit.

After a brief prologue detailing the newspaper, the first feature article formatted as a seminar on art history featured the criminally insane abstract artist, Moses Rosenthaler, played by Benicio Del Toro. The slowest of the tales, Moses fell in love with his prison guard and painted abstract art of her, launching him as an international artist. His unrepentant criminal actions and insanity were played for laughs. The grimmest of subjects paired with comedic performances left an aura of ambivalence.

Transitions from color to black and white, time-hopping and non sequiturs keep the viewers on their toes. The still, square framing of shots, trademark of the director, gave the film a photographic look.

A writer’s movie, the second feature article established the writer, played by Frances McDormand, as an active participant in the journalistic story about the May 1968 revolution. Rather than focus on its scale or severity, “The French Dispatch” focused on its humble origins of a sexual revolution inside university campuses. A story about the young stupid love, and old lonely love, of an edgy student, played by Timothée Chalamet, centered itself on a chess match between the protestors, barricaded in their campus, and the mayor. The match was all that held the police back with their tear gas and rubber bullets, but there is a reason why May ‘68 isn’t remembered as a triumph.

Hand-built sets created picturesque backdrops populated by colorful extras and extravagant stage play. Characters running left and right, and the fixed camera position, fabricated a two-dimensional experience like a cartoon, which served to punctuate any movement across the third dimension. Depth and motion became extremely poignant due to their sparse use.

The final feature was so deftly constructed in sublime storytelling. A culinary exposé, a lonely narrator and a hostage standoff packaged in a ‘70s television talk show left the mind reeling. Never striking a serious tone, the package delivered a circus of entertainment with seamless transitions into action sequences animated in a comic strip. The circus was not all comical theater as the narrating writer revealed his own personal journey leaving pages tinged with sadness. Throughout the entire film, behind the big band’s blaring horns, a tiny violin played its melancholic tune.

The closing article was an obituary on the editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer, portrayed by Bill Murray, a character interlaced into every article for his fatherly, although distanced, relationship with the writers. All the writers jumped into action to memorialize the man responsible for turning an evening gazette into a distinguished publication on world affairs.

“The French Dispatch” is heard as much as it is seen with the writers narrating over their stories in a storybook way. Anderson is the master of this effect from his experience with films like “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Isle of Dogs.” The film harkens back to the ‘40s and ‘50s of cinema without ever feeling outdated. It brings all the modern techniques in a vintage fashion, locking “The French Dispatch” as an instant classic in the annals of cinema history.

Graphic courtesy of Sharon Wu. 

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