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/
Ralph Fiennes was at the NYC press day held at the Park Hyatt to discuss A Bigger Splash. In the film which also stars Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson, Fiennes gives an energetic, profound, and spot-on portrayal as Harry Hawkes, music producer who seeks out his former love Marianne (Tilda Swinton), a rock star who is recuperating from voice surgery. Marianne and Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), are luxuriating on sultry, wind-wily Pantelleria, the island between Italy and Africa. Pantelleria plays an intriguing and unpredictable character in the film, especially as a contrasting presence to the main characters who are well off and revel in their high-end getaway.
Fiennes’ Harry is an amazing personality. He is frenetic, electric, exciting with shades of irrepressible abandon. He is an admixture of winds, like those on the island: he is incapable of drawing lines of propriety when it comes to restoring his love with Marianne; yet he combines his desires for salvation by her with an acute and keen sense of authenticity and blunt truthfulness that is admirable. The character of Harry is quite unlike his film portrayal of Gustav, the honorable, reserved, always impeccable and soulfully noble concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Fiennes’ virtuoso acting skills which are also legion on the stage, allow him to pull out all the stops in his complex, exceptional portrayal of Harry. He discussed Harry and entertained six of us with his effervescent story telling skills during the roundtable. The versatile stage and film actor is also a director and at the end of the interview, Fiennes shared his latest multiple endeavors.
Last time we saw you was in The Grand Budapest Hotel. You were wonderful. I was hoping that the film would receive the Academy Award. It was a phenomenal film.
(Ralph Fiennes shyly smiles.) Good, good. Thank you.
Great contrast in portrayals from The Grand Budapest to A Bigger Splash. It was an inspiration to see you move from that character to Harry Hawkes. Could you feel physically, the difference between these two characters?
Oh, Yes. Very much. In The Grand Budagest, there’s a sort of upright postural thing going on which I think I identified early on as I remember. And of course Harry moves completely differently.
They are like night and day.
It seems to me that they are. Everything about Gustav from his costume to his upright posture is different from Harry. Harry is a rock and roller. (Ralph smiles)
Could you talk about the shoot on Pantelleria as an intriguing location which created its own dynamic?
Yeah, Pantelleria. I didn’t know what I was going to encounter there. I had a sense of some place sunny in the Mediterranean. It’s quite an odd place because there is no other island near it, and it’s volcanic. It must be that it’s sort of on a massive finger of rock that sticks up because the water encircling it is very deep. There are no beaches. And it’s very windy. And it doesn’t feel like Italy. It’s closer to Africa, I think. Odd place, odd because it’s quite rugged even though there is this August summer holiday-like thing happening. But that’s only in August.
It’s quite an eccentric place and the winds are unsettling. They sort of nag at you. They tug at you. It’s not that restful. When the winds stop and you feel the heat, it can be very calm. But the winds change direction all the time. Constantly. Because there are no beaches, you’re conscious of there being these homes. Dammusi is the name. And a single house is a dammuso. And lots of wealthy Italians have their holiday homes there. Armani is famous for being there and has a house there and he’s there precisely for the whole of August.
I remember a couple of times I went out with this local fisherman called Mimo in his little boat composed of flakey wood. Mimo’s a classic local fisherman with his little bottle of wine, offering up some olives and bread. And we jumped over the side into the water with our masks and the boat would chug, chug, chug along quite slowly.
Once we anchored in a little lagoon. Then suddenly I heard this sort of low throb of an engine. And there was this long, long, sleek, state of the art motor boat that drifted into view. There in the back was…gray hair…sunglasses…Giorgio. And there were all of these beautiful people, men and women, all sort of draped around the boat. And there they sat in the water (Ralph makes a purring noise of the boat engines…smiling at the humor of the incident). And Mimo said, (in Ralph’s best Italian accent), “Hey Gorgio.” And they sat and watched us, with me and a couple of friends looking a bit messy. They sat and hovered in the water (thrummmm), and went away again. Very funny to see all these sunglasses switching to a view in one direction. (we laugh at Ralph’s acutely humorous visual description and innate story telling skills)
Your character is not really likable. But he is charming and witty and is intelligent about a myriad of different subjects, but he’s so self-centered and narcissistic. What was it like reading him in a script and then portraying him on the screen? Do you like him?
I do like him. I like him for all the reasons you said. There’s an honesty about him. I think you can take the view that these four people are privileged people and are sitting in their own dysfunction. For Harry…there is something malign and something benign. He’s a sort of devil figure, like a satyr. He’s there to provoke people into self-recognition. He’s got his own demons. And I agree he is narcissistic to some extent. But I like the things he says. I love the lines where he says, “The men have had their chances. It’s the women’s chance to run the world now.” There’s another great line that he says, “We’re all obscene, but we love each other anyway.”
I think he wants no bullshit connection with people. But he’s also a muddled man. The best of Harry is someone who is very direct and doesn’t bullshit. He’s mercilessly honest. And though the film doesn’t show this, I believe he’s a very, very good music producer. Actually, in the room with an artist, he’s brilliant. He really knows his stuff. But he’s a bit of a lost soul. For all his verbosity and provocative antics, underneath, he’s actually a lost person. That’s why he wants Marianne to give him some kind of anchoring.
In the evolution of his character…how you evolved him through the film, when he first goes to the island, does he sense that there’s any impulse to destroy himself?
Good question. I think it might be unconscious (Ralph contemplates), unconscious. Because I think that it is quite a provocative thing to do. To push yourself in on someone’s private holiday. You have to really willfully ignore all the norms. I wonder what a psychotherapist would say about that sort of behavior? It strikes me that it’s unconsciously self-destructive.
You mention about how important it is that he’s a brilliant music producer. A music producer has a different role from a producer in a film. A music producer takes what’s buried in the music and takes what’s best about the musician and, not imposing his will, the producer gets the musician to channel the best performance
He’s brilliant at that.
Could you talk about what you might have learned from the role. If you met some music producers now, what questions would you ask as a result of the film?
My brother’s a music producer. I sat with him in recording studios and I’ve worked with music producers on films I’ve directed. I’ve seen music producers guide musicians with a language I don’t know, but I can see how they are shaping musicians. And when I was directing these two films, I was able to say, though I’ve not much musical or technical knowledge, I would be able to say, “Can it be more like this?” And they would understand what I was trying to say and they would have the skills to say, “No we need to do this or play that on a lower key, and don’t come in too quick on that.”
So I sort of got a sense of what that would involve. And I was reading these books about The Rolling Stones that were helpful background reading. One was about Keith Richards’ life and the other was a book called The True Stories of The Rolling Stones by an American journalist on the Altamont Tour. He was present at the Muscle Shoals’ recording of “Sticky Fingers” and he was there to hear “Wild Horses” being recorded and put down. That was very useful to connect my own little, tiny experience being in recording studios to understand, you know, how musicians go on and on and on playing, and have breaks, have a row and suddenly the magic is there. Or the producer says, “Try doing this,” or “Try playing in that key.” And I thought that’s what Harry’s really good at. Sadly, the film doesn’t show this. But it helped me to know it (Ralph laughs).
Did you collaborate with Mick Jagger?
No, no I didn’t. I understood that the material was sent to them, meaning their representatives. And they knew about it and we got notes on the story. And they were happy for us to, as it were, incorporate the story for Harry. But it was based on a true story of a producer’s. The name I can’t remember right now, but it is a true story. This producer did say, “Try playing the percussion on the trash can in the recording in Dublin for Voodoo Lounge.”
Did you and Tilda work out the characters’ history? It’s such a long and toxic tumultuous relationship.
We talked about it a bit. But I don’t remember talking about it at huge length. We would share our own sense of what our backstory was. But it was quite clear from the script what it was. I think we did talk about it, but it just fell into place quite quickly. All four of us quite quickly seemed to be playing who we are. Luca is not one, and I think he would agree with me, he’s not one given to exhaustive analysis and discussion. There are directors who will pick away in detail at the backstory. I think Luca just got his cast and wants to let the energy unfold between them and doesn’t want to interfere too much.
How do you see your relationship with Penelope? Is he using her to get back on Marianne? There is a lot of ambiguity between them but at the same time there is a good dynamic also.
He believes, as I imagined it, that this is his daughter as a result of an affair or a fling he had 18 years before. I’m not sure whether Harry knows her real age. I imagine the daughter said to her mother, “I want to meet my father.” She had been a model or whatever…Penelope/Dakota had her backstory. Anyway, the mother rings up, we have a daughter of 18 years, or maybe he knows about the daughter but he’s never met her. It moves to “Our daughter wants to meet you.” So he says, “Cool. Fine. Let’s meet.” He’s been with Penelope the last month or so traveling around Italy. And I think he’s enjoying the experience. Harry is someone who’s open to what that experience will be and who she is. He hasn’t pushed her away or closed her off. And I think he’s gotten to like her, finds her interesting. She challenges him and he says in a scene…of course she’s sexy, a young, sexy girl and he can deal with that.
I don’t think he’s tried anything transgressive or incestuous with her, but I think because they’ve never experienced each other as a child or baby or young adolescent, I think they enjoy this slightly flirty vibe that they have. But I don’t think it’s fucked up in any way. I think, as you say, it’s ambivalent. Dakota and I seemed to find it quickly whatever this thing is. She’ll sing “Unforgettable” with him and she’ll enjoy the vibe of sort of flirtatious proximity. I don’t think that Harry’s trying to get into bed with her. Not at all. Not remotely. In fact I think he likes to feel that energy, but he will never cross that line. I think he’s actually quite protective of her.
Any more directing for you?
Yeah. I’m developing some screenplays to direct, but it won’t be for a while.
Any chance you’ll come to Broadway? I’ve seen everything you’ve done there and loved it.
Well, I was hoping to come to Broadway this autumn with The Masterbuilder.
But actually the producers…well, it’s a sellout in London.
Of course. I’ve read that it is.
I don’t know. I think it will come here in the next couple of years.
I hope so.
This article first appeared on Blogcritics.