THE FRENCH DISPATCH
Wes Anderson may be the only living American auteur whose very name gives you everything you need to know about a movie, yet almost nothing in terms of its specifics.
Yes, if you walk into a new release by the writer/director of The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel, you can rest assured that the visuals will be striking and colorful, and the compositions will be so artfully symmetrical that they appear to have been designed with a triangle ruler and protractor. You can bet that the overall mood will be lightly seriocomic and wistfully eccentric, and will be augmented by either under-the-radar pop hits of the '60s or a whimsical, mischievous original score by Alexandre Desplat. If the work in question has more than three significant characters, you can safely presume that Anderson will stuff every nook and cranny with a recognizable, usually Oscar-nominated or -winning actor. You can put money on Bill Murray being one of them.
All of those elements are accounted for in The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson's latest (and pandemic-delayed) comedy whose specific sub-genre can only be described as “Wes Anderson.” But as ever, and despite its referenced European bent, the title does nothing to clear up the mystery of what, precisely, you're going to see, and where the filmmaker's imagination will be taking you. A bustling family saga set in a present-day metropolis? A stop-motion-animated allegory that unfurls 20 years in the future? An underwater adventure studded with deliberately tacky sea creatures and Cate Blanchett? Anderson isn't an acquired taste so much as a gut-level one; nearly every film fan I know either instinctively loves his movies or can't stand them. Yet if you fall in the former camp like I almost always do, your uncertainty about what a new Anderson picture will bring, and be, is nearly as enjoyable as the reams of personalized flourishes we've come to expect and traditionally receive.
This is a long-winded way of explaining why, excepting a few stumbles, I absolutely adored The French Dispatch: It's a Wes Anderson release to its teeth, but presented in a literal storytelling style, and with stylistic touches, that make it wholly and thrillingly unique among its creator's output. Hard as it is to believe, Anderson's tenth full-length feature is his first to be presented as an anthology – his previous sprawling narratives certainly play like anthologies – and they're delivered in a manner that suggests the New Yorker magazine that Anderson's periodical-within-the-film The French Dispatch is inspired by. We're given a de facto letter from the editor and table of contents, followed by a short “Talk of the Town”-esque piece, followed by a trio of heftier essays profiling a major artist or political figure, and concluding with a cumulative wrap-up – in this case, an obituary.
But even if you're not expressly familiar with the New Yorker, it's impossible to miss the magazine feel that Anderson conveys all throughout his latest. Black-and-white images – the movie's “pages,” as it were – are offset by full-color ones. Little jokes are tucked into the film frames like one-panel cartoons with pithy punchlines. Each piece boasts a consistent editorial vibe yet a distinct literary personality. And in his most inspiring conceit, Anderson demonstrates how the profile of a particular subject can be just as much a profile of its writer, if not more of one. By the finales of The French Dispatch's three long-form stories, it feels as though we know the artistic-minded individuals at their centers. It feels like we know the stories' authors even better.
Anderson's driving force behind his movie's “layout” is, naturally, Bill Murray, whose Arthur Howitzer Jr. is a mild-mannered Midwestern newspaperman who traveled to France in the '20s and stayed until his 1975 death. The crown jewel of Howitzer's career is The French Dispatch, a former supplement of the Kansas Evening Sun that became a national sensation for its bewitching tales of European figures as recounted by Americans abroad. As decreed in his will, Howitzer's demise would also mark the end of his magazine and its publishing house in the somewhat seedy French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé – an obviously fictitious burg and a great verbal gag.
So for the very last issue of The French Dispatch, Howitzer pre-planned a best-of edition featuring a quartet of pieces that are visualized on-screen: vignettes that run between five and 30 minutes each, and that collectively showcase such instantly identifiable performers and/or Anderson veterans as Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Willem Dafoe, Henry Winkler, Liev Schreiber, Bob Balaban, Larry Pine, Tony “Lobby Boy” Revolori, and, for about 15 seconds, two-time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz. I'm mentioning those particular names now because Anderson's latest is so jam-packed with noteworthy talents that I won't be mentioning them again. (That list, by the way, doesn't include Howitzer's magazine employees played by Elisabeth Moss, Griffin Dunne, and Fisher Stevens, nor narrator Anjelica Huston.)
With Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman – who also enacts another of Howitzer's staffers – sharing a co-screenwriting credit with Anderson, The French Dispatch's four individualized narratives begin with the literary amuse-bouche “The Cycling Reporter.” In it, Owen Wilson's bike-riding Herbsaint Sazerac guides us through the highways and more frequent byways of Ennui-sur-Blasé, revealing how little the township has changed in a half-century, and taking special notice of the hamlet's drug addicts, prostitutes, pickpockets, pre-teen ruffians, and drowned bodies that are gently guided into the sewer system. (Echoing the practices of the famously fainthearted New Yorker editor William Shawn, Howitzer doesn't care for Sazerac's unsavory descriptions but runs the piece anyway.) The first long-form story, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” finds staff writer J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) exploring the artistic legacy of Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), an incarcerated murderer whose muse is his jailer (Léa Seydoux), and whose incomprehensible works are coveted by art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody).
Written by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), “Revisions to a Manifesto” details student insurrectionist Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) as he attempts to perfect his credo and win a “chessboard revolution” against the police, infuriating and arousing fellow activist Juliette (Lyna Khoudri) in the process. And finally, in “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” a master-chef profile by author Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) mutates into a violent page-turner when the young son of the commissioner (Mathieu Amarlric) is kidnapped, and only the story's purported subject Lieutenant Nescaffier (Stephen Park) can save the day.
Not all of these French Dispatch segments are completely successful. Wilson's travelogue, with its cheekily awful green-screen effects, is amusing yet repetitive; “Manifesto,” despite its touching finale, feels like it's spinning its wheels and doesn't give McDormand and Chalamet anything to do that they haven't done more effectively elsewhere. But even a best-of edition of your favorite periodical features a few bum notes within all the exceptional ones. And Anderson's new offering is so teeming with richly beguiling material and performances that the rare sour notes are only momentary distractions, like the annoyance you feel when you're 10 pages into an exquisitely rendered short story and don't want your enthusiasm dimmed by “continued on page 85” or a full-page ad for Tommy Hilfiger.
Among the film's many, many highlights, I'm thinking of Swinton, a riotous caricature of humblebrag egoism whose vowels have to push their way through oversize teeth. Or del Toro, looking as morose as Benicio del Toro has ever looked, self-strapped into an electric chair to rid Rosenthaler of his romantic misery. Or Brody's volcanic anger as he realizes an artwork he's been clamoring for isn't a series of paintings or sculptures, but rather a fresco. Or Lois Smith as a down-to-earth Midwestern collector whose brilliantly hayseed name Maw Clampette doesn't come close to doing her artistic sensibilities justice.
And all that is just in the first long-form vignette. There's also Chalamet's lonely, tragic view from atop a radio tower. McDormand's recognition of her own complicity in national unrest. The staff writer employed for 30 years who never composes a thing. A circus strongman hired to pummel a kidnapper. Morse code employed as a rescue plan. The unsettling staircase to the top office of Howitzer's publishing house. Nascaffier's astonishment, after decades of recipes, at finally sampling a brand-new taste. A harrowing action spectacle reduced to comic-book flippancy. Jeffrey Wright – his film's unquestionable MVP – channeling the ethos and cadences of James Baldwin while adding a heartsick soulfulness that's completely his own.
These are examples of absolute cinematic magnificence, and they land in droves in The French Dispatch, a low-key enchantment in which your constant smiles turn into vocal laughs before being subdued by instances of odd, unclassifiable beauty and melancholy to break your heart. In this loving ode to literary journals, journalists, and the increasingly vanishing art of print, there's a sign above publisher Howitzer's door that serves as instruction to everyone who exits: “No crying.” Sorry, Bill. I tried.
Unless you're an Anglophile with a special fondness for The Crown, a fan of Kristen Stewart in everything but the Twilight flicks, or a lifelong subscriber to People magazine, you may not be eager to see Spencer, director Pablo Larraín's “fable based on a true tragedy” in which Princess Diana spends her Christmas weekend in 1991 building up the courage to leave Prince Charles for good. Would you be more stoked for the experience if I told you that the movie isn't a heavily accented Masterpiece Theatre bio-pic so much as an intensely gripping psychological thriller? Or that it boasts a Jonny Greenwood score as nerve-shredding as the one he composed for There Will Be Blood? Or that Larraín shoots the Queen's expansive Sandringham Estate in Norfolk to make it more accurately reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel?
Like The Shining, Spencer, titled after its heroine's maiden name, is a film of ghosts: deceased royals whose portraiture haunts the iconoclastic Diana whenever she roams the halls; figures of disappointment and judgment (Prince Philip, Camilla Parker-Bowles) who gaze directly at the princess yet never utter a word; an actual phantasm in the visits by executed queen Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson). It's Diana herself, however, who seems most on the verge of vanishing. Devastated by the realization of her husband's affair, constricted by the bounds of tradition, tortured by the imperious dismissiveness of her in-laws, and aching to be reunited with her little princes William and Harry (the superbly naturalistic Jack Nielen and Freddie Spry), Stewart's Diana is slowly and surely unraveling. And placing this damaged, emotionally untethered young woman in the suffocating spaciousness of the Queen's Norfolk residence gives Larraín's and screenwriter Steven Knight's fiction the tingly dynamism of a high-class horror show. Even though its director created a similarly fraught environment for the Jacqueline Kennedy of his 2016 Jackie, I'm not sure what I expected to see in Spencer. Whatever it was, I don't think it included a lavish dinner sequence that had me clenching my fists out of escalating panic, nor the cobwebs and collapsing floorboards of a literal haunted house.
Beyond our images of Anne Boleyn, there are added bits of silliness and gaucheness in Larraín's fever-dream character study: a wire-cutter injury that may or may not be real; Diana's willingness to be shot while posing like a scarecrow. (At the screening I attended, fellow patrons were apparently so starved for laughs – or maybe just so shocked – that they giggled at Diana's masturbation reference for a good 30 seconds.) And although there's less dialogue in the 110 minutes here than in any hour-long episode of The Crown, there might still be too much, as Knight's characters – principally the rare Diana allies portrayed by Sean Harris and a particularly moving Sally Hawkins – tend to over-elocute their mission statements and too-blatantly underscore the film's themes.
Still, the beautifully photographed Spencer is a potent, powerful study in terrorized sadness, and Kristen Stewart, as you may have heard, is utterly remarkable. Whether trembling with barely concealed anxiety or exuding glorious warmth in the affections of Diana's children, the actor is subtly overwhelming in scene after scene, and while she may not strongly resemble the late Princess of Wales, Stewart makes you feel, by the end, that you've truly come to know her. Right when you least expect it, in one of the most satisfying moments of the year, Greenwood's meticulously edgy score gives way to the frivolous, exuberant '80s pop of Mike & the Mechanics' “All I Need Is a Miracle.” In Spencer, Stewart is that miracle.
Let's see … what else opened this past weekend … ? Oh, wait, I remember! Marvel Studios' latest comic-book blockbuster Eternals! The one with that whole new set of superheroes to fawn over and an Oscar-winning director in Nomadland's Chloë Zhao! It's terrible!
I swear I'm not exaggerating or being willfully contrary. This thing is terrible – two-and-a-half hours of excruciating boredom with largely uninteresting performances and desperately uninteresting characters and yet another meaningless end-of-the-world plot and interchangeable monsters and lame gags and relentlessly back-patting political correctness (Asians! Gays! A deaf superhero!) and end-credit cookies hell-bent on making audiences more excited for the next MCU outings than they ever are at this one. Despite the movie's high profile and more-than-decent box office, I've saved this past weekend's worst area release for last because (a) I just don't have the energy to get into it, and (b) there are currently so many savagely funny take-downs on Zhao's debacle out there that I feel no need to pile on. (I'm counting the minutes until the Web series Pitch Meetings gets its hands on it.) Let me just say that any film that can't score a single laugh out of Kumail Nanjiani portraying an egomaniacal Bollywood star is clearly doing something wrong, and that if I saw one more shot of a conflicted figure with a single tear descending down his or her cheek I would have beaten myself to death with my theater seat's armrest.
Admittedly, a few of the visuals (especially Makkari's warp speed and Ikaris' flight and laser-beam eyes) are nicely rendered, and Zhao does have a gift for elegant magic-hour imagery. If it were a silent movie, and if the sameness of the presentation weren't so enervating, this might not have been half bad. But from the opening “In the beginning ...” crawl that lasts roughly the length of a Hemingway novel to the insufferable recurrence of heroic-chorus-line posing to our lovestruck leads evidently deciding to date for 900-plus years before officially tying the knot, Eternals is a super-powered pile of Marvel crap that makes Thor: The Dark World and Captain Marvel look like … . Well, like Nomadland, a legit-deserving Best Picture winner whose artfulness, I'm afraid, is now going to be tarnished by the pissed-off Marvel brigade (who no doubt didn't see Nomadland) who'll blame Zhao entirely for this nearly inarguable low point in the MCU. Though I guess I should be grateful that the film was at least accurately titled, because it sure felt like I was watching it forever.