The pandemic may have deprived us of the chance of seeing Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch on the big screen but there’s some comfort in the fact that it’s finally streaming in India (on Disney+ Hotstar). The film is a triptych of stories (plus a prologue) set in Paris, each centring on a different piece by a fictional New Yorker-like magazine called “The French Dispatch”. Working with his regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman, composer Alexandre Desplat (in witty form), and a cast too expansive to list here, Anderson pushes his singular ornamental style to its limits. For those who were delighted (as I was) by the film and are keen to stay immersed in that world, here’s a selection of related features, documentaries and film criticism.
My Journey Through French Cinema (2016)
The French Dispatch is studded with references to Gallic cinema. If you are in the mood for more, there’s no better overview than the two cine tributes Bertrand Tavernier made towards the end of his life. In My Journey Through French Cinema, Tavernier talks about his inspirations—from François Truffaut and Jean Renoir to lesser-known figures like Guy Gilles—for over three hours, mixing anecdote and film appreciation. Not satisfied with this, he then made a companion series called Journeys Through French Cinema (2017), spread over seven hours.
La Chinoise (1967)
The middle story in The French Dispatch concerns two young students, played by Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri, and their participation in the fictional “Chessboard Revolution” of 1968. Though it unfolds mostly in black and white, it’s reminiscent of a 1967 colour film by Jean-Luc Godard about a group of young Maoists in Paris debating the merits of violent revolution. Shot in ravishing bold colour by Raoul Coutard, La Chinoise is alternately provocative, frustrating and tartly funny. This is Godard at the end of his first golden period, a year away from embarking on explicitly Marxist film-making. Anderson mimics the almost surreal fervour of Godard’s firebrands discussing politics. There’s another borrowing, on the soundtrack: a cover by Jarvis Cocker of the Mao Mao number from Godard’s film.
Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1973)
As an American food writer named Roebuck Wright, Jeffrey Wright gives The French Dispatch’s most moving performance. We see him first as an older man, being interviewed on TV, where he’s asked about a famous piece he had written. We then see a younger Wright, on assignment to write about a chef, getting dragged into an adventure when his host, a police chief, gets a phone call saying his son has been kidnapped.
Wright is partially based on James Baldwin, another black, gay author and critic who lived in Paris for decades. In a documentary short from 1973 (streaming on MUBI), we see him spar with white English reporters and later relax in the company of black expatriates. It’s a fascinating mini-portrait, made poignant by Baldwin’s attempts to alternately evade and get through to his obtuse interviewers. The pain and pride of Baldwin finds an echo in Roebuck’s “solitary feast” monologue, in which he says, simply, “I chose this life.”
How Wes Anderson’s Style Changed After Animation (2019)
Anderson has such a distinct aesthetic that dissections of his films constitute a small cottage industry. One excellent theory about Anderson’s evolving style is put forward in this 11-minute video essay by Julian Palmer on his YouTube channel, The Discarded Image. Palmer argues that Anderson’s style underwent several subtle but recognisable changes after he made his first animation feature, Fantastic Mr Fox (2009). The films that followed were more “designed”, with increasingly complicated action choreographed like one would with stop-motion figures.
La Belle Noiseuse (1991)
In the first story in The French Dispatch, Benicio Del Toro plays a painter in prison and Léa Seydoux a guard who poses in the nude for him. This is a miniature riff on Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse. This 240-minute film is a deconstruction of the artistic process, a gradually unfolding power struggle between a great painter and a nude model.
Mon Oncle (1958)
There are several references to French director Jacques Tati, whose intricate gags have been an inspiration for Anderson in the past. The most pointed is in the very first scene. A waiter carries a tray laden with liqueurs up the winding diagonal stairwells of The French Dispatch building. This is a tribute to a scene in Mon Oncle in which Tati’s Monsieur Hulot takes a similarly circuitous path up the side of a building that looks much the same as this one.