Mentioned in Dispatches

The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (Wes Anderson, 2021)

Anderson is a Marmite director and I confess to blowing a little hot and cold – I can’t help but admire the inventiveness and – like Jim Jarmusch and, formerly, Woody Allen, he gets a high octane cast. I just wonder if he doesn’t go too whimsical and self-indulgent.

The French Dispatch is a case in point. Inspired by the glory days of The New York, Anderson transplants the journal to Ennui, a small town in France, around the time of the death of its editor, and gives us a town tour, a story about a prisoner who became a world famous artist, a story about a teen revolutionary and a story about the kidnapping of the police commissionaire’s son. The film – never less than beautiful – switches between colour and black and white, live action and animation, footage and quasi archive photography. It is overwhelming with detail, down to an animated alternative version of the credits which operates as a promo video for Jarvis Cocker’s track – his image appears as French heart-throb popster Tip-Top. And of course there is Chansons d’Ennui, an album by Tip-Top. Of course.

For much of the film I sat with a silly smile on my face. I enjoyed the theatricality, winked at the dodgy greenscreen, awed at the opening scene of a bartender carrying a tray of drinks up endless flights of stairs to the editorial office.

You need a big screen for this.

And yet that car chase is a little too long. It probably needed a little tightening.

Here’s Timothée Chalamet being more interesting than he ever will be as Emo Atreides, here’s Francis McDormand in a perfect role and Tilda Swinton in a stunning frock, here’s Bill Murray almost phoning in his role and here’s Benicio del Toro almost being comprehensible. Jeffrey Wight channels James Baldwin and Leiv Schreiber challenges you to recall where you recognise his face from. That’s a problem with Bob Balaban and Henry Winkler, as it distracts from their scenes – although oddly I guessed the former and not the Fonz. I guess I stood no chance in recognising Angelica Huston as the narrator.

We have three female narrators and two male – one of the male ones (Owen Wilson) being rather brief – but the stories are about men. Okay, it is clear that Lucinda Krementz (McDormand) steps over the line of journalistic distancing and intervenes in Zeffirelli’s (Chalamet)’s protest, but Juliette (Lyna Khoudri) is a little thinly drawn. And artist Moses Rosenthaler (del Toro)’s prison warder muse Simone (Léa Seydoux) presumably has a rich hinterland that explains her nude posing, but that’s not the story we’re told. Roebuck Wright (Wright) is Black and gay, but we’re told the latter more than shown it (although there’s male sex workers in Ennui).

More pluses than minuses, and by chance (Colin and Mitch’s recommendation), I found there was an exhibition of props at 180 The Strand,* a newish venue hewn out of a Brutalist building a block or so from Somerset House. There are maps of Ennui, models of the townscape, miniatures from an art collection.

We see notebooks and typewriters, layout boards for the magazine, Rosenthaler’s iconic paintings, and piles of faked French paperbacks. There was a good hour of browsing, admiring the craft, trying not to fetishize it too much. And then, I think with a wink, a recreation of the film’s café.

* The entrance was hidden down Surrey Street. And Temple Station is obscured at the bottom of the hill.

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