‘The French Dispatch’ review: Remember the magazines?

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For example: Roebuck Wright, played by Jeffrey Wright, resembles James Baldwin in his speech patterns, body language, and way of dressing. But the article he contributes to The French Dispatch is more like something AJ Liebling would have undertaken – an excursion into the mysteries (and in this case quite fanciful) of French gastronomy. The mash-up, like many in the film, feels both absurd and touching in some way.

It’s not really possible to spoil any of the major episodes, but it’s also foolish to try to wrap them up. The cast is as huge and as heterogeneous as the list of names in a New York poem “Greetings, Friends”:

Matthew Amalric! Edward Norton!
Elisabeth Moss and Jason Schwartzman!
Adrien Brody, Lyna Khoudri,
Owen Wilson, even Fonzie!

etc Tonal shifts from melancholy to antique are a signature of Anderson, accentuated by shifts from black and white to color, live action to animation, and what could be the 1930s. or 40s to what could be the 60s or 70s.

After an introduction (with voice-over by Anjelica Huston) and a prose-poem tour of Ennui (driven by Wilson on a bicycle), we settle into some of what real New Yorkers liked to call “long facts”. Each feature film is, in fact, a double portrait: of the writer at work on the story and of a charismatic and elusive central character, against a backdrop of chaos and intrigue. Roebuck Wright is paired with a neighborhood leader (Stephen Park); Lucinda Krementz (McDormand) with a rebellious student (Timothée Chalamet); JKL Berensen (Swinton) with a tormented painter (Benicio Del Toro). The fact that the two female writers slept with their sources suggests that this love letter to journalism could have benefited from an editor mindful of repetition and cliché.

In any issue of any publication, some pieces will be stronger than others. “The Police Commissioner’s Private Dining Room,” Wright’s culinary crime story, is turbulent and convoluted, with a beautiful bittersweet payoff. Swinton’s offering, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” with Del Toro in a straitjacket and Léa Seydoux in and out of an asylum guard’s uniform is, to me, both the silliest of chapters and the most moving. “Revisions to a Manifesto,” with McDormand recounting a May 68 student protest (and his affair with one of its leaders, played by Chalamet), struck me as the thinnest and most strenuous in its fantasy, offering an overly clever pastiche of real-world events that flattens and trivializes them.

On the other hand, it reminded me of “Masculin Féminin”, one of my favorite Godard films. A certain amount of enjoyment you find in “The French Dispatch” may come from your appreciation of the cultural moments and artifacts it evokes. Anderson expresses a fan’s zeal and a collector’s greed for canonical works and odd odds and ends, a love for old modernisms that is undogmatic and unsentimental.

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