When Cameron and I did our 2021 year in review video, one of the movies mentioned was The French Dispatch (2021). This triggered a slight rabbit hole discussion of other films directed by Wes Anderson, some of which I enjoy quite a lot like Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). In some respects, if you have seen one Wes Anderson movie, you have seen them all. They are different stories, but the filming style and techniques all speak to one auteur. This is not a complaint. I enjoy the whimsy of his offerings. What separates the good from the bad is the content of the story. While there were a few moments in Moonlight Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel that make this Catholic reviewer blush, I am, on the whole, charmed by them. There are fleeting tidbits of charm in The French Dispatch, but its lack of a central plot made it a tough watch. I suppose, given Anderson’s increasingly non-linear methods, that a complete mess such as this was always possible.
Why The French Dispatch? Because it is the European wing of the Liberty, Kansas, Evening Sun. It is set in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, and the bureau’s editor-in-chief is Arthur Howtizer, Jr. (Bill Murray). When he suddenly dies, as per his wishes, one last publication is printed before operations cease. These include an overview of the town provided by Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), otherwise known as the cycling reporter. There is an account of the lecture given by J. K. L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) on the art of the mentally unstable Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), once imprisoned in town for murder. The third is the tale of the student revolt delivered by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). The fourth piece relates the kidnapping and subsequent rescue of the police Commissaire’s (Mathieu Amalric) son Gigi (Winston Ait Hellal) as delivered by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright). Capping off these unrelated articles, aside from the publication and the town linking them together, is a brief obituary for Arthur. And that is pretty much the movie. I could go into detail about each of the stories, but they are all presented as separate vignettes with their own internal structures. This is a long way of saying that describing each would be tedious.
The one part of The French Dispatch I will spend some time on is the article titled, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.” This is, of course, when the kidnapping of Gigi occurs. In classic Wes Anderson fashion, this is a story, within a story, within a story, within a story. Confused? That is because it is Roebuck’s flashback, as written for the paper, then told on a French television show, and all of which is part of the final issue occasioned by Arthur’s passing. Anderson does use black and white photography during flashbacks in order to untangle the web of windows through which you watch it all unfold. At any rate, Roebuck, as a young reporter, is invited to dine in the house of the police commissioner. This is considered a great honor because of the renown of his personal chef, Nescaffier (Stephen Park). The aforementioned kidnapping takes place during their meal, and the culprits, led by a failed musician knowns as the Chauffeur (Edward Norton), are tracked to a seedy apartment in town. Gigi, being the police work enthusiast that he is thanks to the indulgence of his father, manages to relay a message to the authorities using Morse code: send the cook. Nescaffier is taken in to the kidnapper’s hide-out where he prepares for them an exquisite meal laced with poison. All the criminals succumb to the toxic meal except for the Chauffeur, who absconds with Gigi with the police and Roebuck in pursuit. The chase scene is humorously done in animation, complete with a local body-builder turned good Samaritan who leaps onto the Chauffer’s car in an attempt to rescue Gigi. The body builder manages to get Gigi out through the roof and reunited with his father before seeing the vehicle over an embankment to crash in a fiery wreck below. The bit ends with Roebuck and Howitzer arguing over a deleted part of the story where Nescaffier survives the ordeal and talks about the exquisite taste of the poison.
For all the lurching from vignette to vignette in The French Dispatch, the ending contains something that appealed to my Catholic senses. It talks about finding what eludes us in places we once called home. One can make the argument that this is the theme behind whole movie. When somebody dies, those that person leaves behind come together, often in a familiar location, to reminisce about the dead loved one. This is the liminal space on which these stories take place, and they reveal to each other aspects of Arthur as well as the town he came to appreciate. Our Faith lives, particularly for us Catholics, are similar. The Bible, though voluminous, is finite. Yet, we keep going back to it because subsequent readings reveal something about our relationship with God about which we may have never considered. Such is the wellspring of truth in God that we can spend a lifetime plumbing the depths of our Creator and never find Its bottom. An intentionally silly, sometimes vulgar, piece of cinema such as The French Dispatch (or any other, for that matter), can never attain the ultimate truth so many seek. Still, it does provide a pale facsimile of a blueprint for experiencing God, if you can interpret it in the right way.
A moment ago I mentioned that The French Dispatch is sometimes vulgar. I can sum this up by mentioning the fact that I did not discuss “The Concrete Masterpiece,” the story that deals with Moses Rosenthaler. His heinous, grotesque murders are treated with a lack of gravity, and he spends much of his time painting the fully nude Simone (Léa Seydoux), a prison guard and his nurse. For long stretches, the camera focuses on her completely naked form with the kind of interest a pre-teen would gaze upon their first pornographic magazine. In other words, there is nothing uplifting or purposeful about it. Dear Wes Anderson, you could accomplish the same thing by merely suggesting nudity instead of graphically showing it. These scenes, taken with the general lack of direction, make this a hard pass for me. It is a shame, too, because I want to like Anderson’s work. Luckily, he has other quality work.