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Wes Craven’s ‘The French Dispatch’ a 59th New York Film Festival Review

Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Fans of the inimitable Wes Anderson’s droll wit and pixie capriciousness will enjoy The French Dispatch, though it diverges from his other films. Truly, this amazing work spins off Craven’s usual stylistic nuances into the realm of the cinematic magazine. Craven directed and wrote the screenplay with story help from Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola.

Importantly, The French Dispatch pays homage to the magazine he riffs, The New Yorker and the renowned writers from the past (James Baldwin) receive more than a nod. Chock full of references, Craven employs his choice mediums (animated car chase, cartoons, cut out color sets, dead on camera framing) and adds the magazine format. This extraordinary film which engrosses, ridicules, satirizes, mourns, praises, and twits writers past and present screens at the 2021 NYFF until 10 October.

Wryly narrated by Anjelica Huston, the film opens by defining “The French Dispatch” as an eponymous expatriate journal published on behalf of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Ironically, Craven has named the journal’s place of publication as the fictional 20th century French city, Ennui-sur-Blasé. (Ennui=the city, Blasé=the river)  Roughly, Ennui-sur-Blasé translates as boredom of the worldy-wise apathetic, a superb irony.

Thus, “The French Dispatch” attempts to make middle-America’s readers acculturated cosmopolitans. By way of explaining the periodical’s cleverness, Craven’s film brings to life a collection of stories from the final print issue. Indeed, this lively anthology serves as an encomium to the death of its editor-in-chief, the big “gun” Arthur Howitzer, Jr (Bill Murray). Thematically, while highlighting the time in France (1950s-1970s) Craven weaves dark ironies that reference the current times.

Using waggish and epigrammatic descriptions, the narrator presents the quirky, peculiar press corps, writers of the wildly over the top stories activated by Craven. After the director introduces us to the meticulous Howitzer Jr. and others (look for the writer diagramming sentences on a blackboard) we meet cyclist Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson). Craven uses opportunities for humor through double entendre, with names that have nuanced meanings. For example, “Sazerac” is a beloved bourbon or rye cocktail of New Orleanians.

As Sazerac cycles us via a travelogue through Ennui-sur-Blasé, with shots from the past (black and white) and future (color) we note its dinginess (terraced rat dwellings) poverty, underworld pimps and prostitutes and other charms. In other words, the city reeks of humanity which remains forever unchanging. Of course, “The French Dispatch” reports on stories that identify the weirdest and most comically contradictory of the denizens of humanity.

First, Huston introduces a story, assisted with a lecture at a symposium given by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) cultural reporter of the “The French Dispatch” arts section. Berensen relates an amazing tale. One of the foremost contributors to modern art remains hitherto for unknown: psychotic criminal artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). On the brink of suicide, Moses finds his answer to life and love via his sadistic prison guard lover Léa Seydoux

With the unpredictable guard as his muse, Moses immortalizes her in abstracts he paints on the concrete walls of the prison. Like Banksy, Moses prevents his greedy, exploitive art dealer (Adrien Brody) from easily trafficking his art by painting his frescos on a building making them unremovable. During an investors’ showing in the prison, the prisoners riot to muscle in on Moses’ elite visitors and hold them hostage. Moses’s violent nature, which put him in prison serves him well. With brute force Moses destroys the rioters stopping their attack of the dealer and wealthy purchaser Upshur Clampette (Lois Smith). With his investors saved, Moses receives parole. He has provided his unique contribution to the Clampette Museum, representing abstract fine art at its incredibly ironic, violent best.

Next in the collection, the story of student revolutionaries of 1968 compels its reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) to have an “objective” affair with star revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet). Helping to straighten out his befuddled theories and justifications to revise his “manifesto,” Krementz as the “older woman,” influences Zeffrielli. Eventually, he succumbs to his nemesis, the beautiful counterrevolutionary Juliette (Lyna Khoudri) and they stay together until tragedy strikes. Nevertheless, the created manifesto lives on as does Krementz’ reportage, thoughto the revolution, the revolutionaries and their Utopian ideals fade from memory into a fever dream of unreality.

Finally, Huston sets up the story of the dinner with a police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) and his personal chef Lieutenant Nescafier (Steven Park). Gourmand writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) intends to report on the delectable cuisine of the famous Nescafier. However, complications arise when the commissioner, a veritable Jacques Clouseau, has the tables turned on him and criminals kidnap his son. Finally, locating the son, Chef Nescafier prepares a snack which poisons all but the son, the chef and the chauffeur (Ed Norton). The ensuing car chase (a humorous Craven animation) ends with a crash and the son rejoins his father.

At this juncture Howitzer Jr. chides Wright for not describing Nescafier’s cuisine. Wright avers. And thus occurs an incredible moment that alludes to the writing of James Baldwin. Succinctly, Wright describes that he cut out the chef’s words because as an expatriate, the chef, another expatriate made him sad. When Wright repeats Nescafier’s words that he cut, Howitzer Jr. notes with passion that it must not be excluded. He insists the Chef’s extraordinary, philosophical observation about the poison in the dish is the only valuable part of the Wright’s work.

Profoundly, in the flash of a moment, we understand why Howitzer Jr. left for this strange outpost in Ennui-sur-Blasé. Fulfilling his goals, he configured a magazine with a global readership that published the profound, the unique, the revelatory. And it included those bits and pieces of life whose revelations edified and informed with a keen, accurate eye. Amazingly, in a brief span of a few moments, Craven says it all about writing and writers, finding the elusive and bringing it to our consciousness. Of course, this question Craven asks silently with The French Dispatch.  What happens when censorship, and an absence of prescience, wisdom and freedom runs the presses as they do currently in the U.S.?

The French Dispatch bears seeing a few times to catch its luxuriant richness. Not only does Craven employ fanciful images in contradictions journalistically, the resonance of language and word choice is satiric, sardonic and powerful. So is the mosh of well-thought out cinematography and scenic design. For tickets and times at the 2021 New York Film Festival website. https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2021/films/the-french-dispatch/

‘Ernest and Celestine’ at The New York International Children’s Film Festival

Ernest & Celestine with Forest Whitaker, McKenzie Foy, William H. Macy, Lauren Bacall, Jeffrey Wright and Paul Giamatti

Ernest & Celestine with Forest Whitaker, Mckenzie Foy, William H. Macy, Lauren Bacall, Jeffrey Wright, and Paul Giamatti

The New York International Children’s Film Festival is offering screenings of top films for kids and adults. Many are popular and the tickets to official screenings and after party events have been sold out. However, tickets are being offered at venues throughout the city, so it is not too late to see beautiful, groundbreaking, thought-provoking films from around the world for ages 3-18. In the case of Ernest and Celestine directed by Stephane Aubier, Benjamin Renner and Vincent Patar which still has tickets available, even adults will enjoy the deeper issues and technical expertise which made this an award winning animated feature from France.

Daniel Pennac based his screenplay for this ethereally artistic and dreamy animation on the characters of Ernest and Celestine by Belgian author and illustrator Gabrielle Vincent. Vincent (1928 -2000) added to her initial concept of Ernest and Celestine by creating an entire Ernest & Celestine collection. She wrote and illustrated a total of thirty-eight books which encompass the pairs’ various adventures. Each has subtle lessons for children to assimilate as they enjoy the mouse-bear struggles and find solutions in the bonds of friendship. Adapting to themes of their unlikely companionship, Pennac has written a tale of how these two delicious and beautifully rendered characters met, bonded, and began their very first adventure together. In effect the feature serves as a prerequisite to the classic series of Ernest and Celestine books that readers around the world delight in.

The Ernest & Celestine animated feature has all of the elements of an adorable yet meaningful romp through a fantasy land of two disparate animal social cultures. The mice live below ground and control their terrain and society using a hierarchical pecking order fueled by mythologies and mores which promulgate an intense fear of alternate animal societies. Every child is indoctrinated with a horror of the ursine society which lives above ground. Profit motives and survival motives exploit this fear which trends throughout the mice generations. One reason for the antipathy between the two cultures is suggested. The mice/rats depend upon bear teeth when theirs fall out or they will become unproductive and perish. The bears don’t willingly give up old teeth; the mice must surreptitiously steal them. Thus, the mice employ corrupt means to exploit the “alien” culture.

Ernest & Celestine at the New York International Children's Film Festival

Ernest & Celestine at the New York International Children’s Film Festival

For their part the bears abhor the creatures below ground. Theirs is a community of quaint, charming storybook houses out of Bruges, Belgium, minus the canals. The seemingly sweet dwellings are paintbrush animated in light, watercolors, simplistically drawn. The pastels tend toward pinkish, cream, fade-washed shades. However, all is not fairy tale “nice” in the ursine society. The profit motive also drives the bear population, and we see one example with the candy store entrepreneur. He sells delicious sweets of all stripes and colors to lure the bear children and adults into overindulgence. To gain his profits on the back end, his wife sells bear teeth for the children and adults who will lose theirs eating his sweets. He is without compunction or morals supported by an oblivious social structure equally as corrupt as the mice society.

Both cultures above and below ground are Philistine in nature and represent some of the worst human social characteristics; they are greedy, selfish, exploitative, without empathy, fear-mongering and manipulative. Our two friend heroes do not fit in; they are artists: Ernest is a musician and Celestine loves to draw. Both are not appreciated for their talents and Ernest lives alone in his ramshackle house while Celestine, an orphan, must steal bear teeth to survive. Through a “random” series of events in which Ernest nearly eats Celestine, the two strike a spark of empathy, love, and understanding. This lifts both beyond the fear and death-embracing, indoctrinating cultures that attempted to brainwash them in the name of sustaining an unfortunate paradigm of existence. With their artistic sensibilities they appreciate each other’s gifts and find a peaceful and pleasant “way of being.” These experiences allow them to tap into a reservoir of hope, love, and loyalty so that they might overcome the horrors of what threatens to destroy them when each is caught and imprisoned by the “enemy” side.

Ernest & Celestine, directed by Stephane Aubiere, Benjamin Renner and    at the

Ernest & Celestine, directed by Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner.

Forest Whitaker (Ernest), Mackenzie Foy (Celestine), Lauren Bacall (The Grey One-mouse), Paul Giamatti (Rat Judge), William H. Macy (Mouse Dentist), Jeffrey Wright (Grizzly Judge) do a fine job with their characterizations. Whitaker is grumpy, yawny, sleepy, kind with humorous grunts and groans. Foy is delicate, sweet, and serenely heroic as one would hope Celestine would be. The animations pair beautifully with the selected actors’ portrayals. Lauren Bacall is practically unrecognizable and scary as are Wright and Giamatti. I did love Macy’s removed and “matter-of-fact” explanation of why the bear teeth are of paramount importance to mice survival, and his transformation into bully as he threatens Celestine not to come back until she achieves her bear teeth quota.

If you have not seen the film yet, take your kids or grandchildren who will appreciate it. Do not pass up the opportunity to see it. You will appreciate the underlying themes and animation, music, and screenplay artistry that blend to form a perfect and satisfying whole.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

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