Wes Anderson's 'The French Dispatch' is Good. Period(ical). : Pop Culture Happy Hour Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch is a love letter to classic French cinema and The New Yorker magazine. Like all of his films, it's highly stylized — this one adopts the format of a magazine. It's an anthology of sorts, featuring three different main stories. The film's actors Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Benicio del Toro, Timothée Chalamet, and Jeffrey Wright.

Wes Anderson's 'The French Dispatch' is Good. Period(ical).

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GLEN WELDON, HOST:

Wes Anderson's "The French Dispatch" is a love letter to classic French cinema and to The New Yorker magazine. Like all of his films, it's highly stylized. This one adopts the format of a magazine. It's an anthology of sorts, featuring three different main stories. The film's actors include many who belong to Anderson's go-to stable, like Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton. But there's some new faces in the mix as well, including Benicio Del Toro, Lea Seydoux, Timothee Chalamet and Jeffrey Wright. I'm Glen Weldon. And today, we're talking about "The French Dispatch" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELDON: Welcome back. Joining us from her home is film critic and culture journalist Bedatri D. Choudhury. Hey, Bedatri.

BEDATRI D CHOUDHURY: Hi, Glen. And so happy to be back.

WELDON: Happy to have you, as always. The conceit of "The French Dispatch" is that we, the viewer, are reading the final issue of a Sunday supplement to a fictional Kansas newspaper, a magazine called "The French Dispatch," which is headquartered in the equally fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blase. We meet its editor, who is inspired by New Yorker editors Harold Ross and William Shawn. He's played by Bill Murray. He oversees a bullpen of characters inspired by classic New Yorker writers, like Mavis Gallant, A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell. We get some introductory material. Then we watch three stories - or articles, I suppose - play out, one about a criminally insane painter, played by Benicio del Toro; one about a student uprising, featuring Timothee Chalamet as a young revolutionary and Frances McDormand as an older journalist chronicling it; and a third, featuring Jeffrey Wright as a writer based on James Baldwin, who accompanies the local police commissioner when the commissioner's son gets kidnapped. But after lots of bells and whistles here - there's lots of spinning plates - what did you make of "The French Dispatch?"

CHOUDHURY: A word I often use to describe most of Wes Anderson's films is delightful. And there is so much beauty to take in and detailing to take in and delight oneself with. So again, you know, I think this film is a delightful film, and I obviously loved the detailing, you know, that Wes Anderson is famous for, the meticulous dealing. And I like anthology films, so it's, like, a win, win, win.

WELDON: Absolutely. I mean, like you either like Anderson, or you don't. If you like him, you call him imaginative and idiosyncratic and stylized.

CHOUDHURY: Delightful.

WELDON: Delightful. If you don't, you say things like self-indulgent and mannered. And going in, you know this is going to be classic Anderson meticulous and elaborate. He's all about the theater, right? He's all about the artifice. And that's why all of his films, every last one is a pleasure in the moment while you're watching them. There's just - as you mentioned, there's so much sweat equity onscreen. And there's also, like, the pleasure of seeing Tilda and Bill Murray and Ed Norton and all his favorites. But not all of his films linger with you or at least linger with me. Some of them - they dissolve as soon as the lights come up.

And the ones that have stuck with me are, like, "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Rushmore," "Grand Budapest Hotel" because I think those films have at their core some real emotion. Films that hit the little bit less with me are, like, "Life Aquatic" and "Darjeeling Limited," where his kind of baseline misanthropy can come through. I do think this film has an emotional grounding, and I think when he works, he works when it is hitting squarely in his emotional wheelhouse, which is a kind of melancholy sweetness, not cloying sweetness, but, like, when he allows a little bit of sincerity into the mix.

CHOUDHURY: Right. And, you know, ranking his films is always a little hard. I mean, I kind of disagree with you on "Life Aquatic" because it's one of my favorites. But I can tell you that "Life Aquatic" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox" are still my favorites. Like, this film does not Trump those, but I definitely like this one better than "Darjeeling Limited."

WELDON: Sure. These are, at the end of the day, three very different but equally Andersonian love stories, right?

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

WELDON: I mean, the first one is about the love between a painter, played by Benicio Del Toro, and Lea Seydoux as his guard in the institution but also his muse. And there's also Adrien Brody as an art dealer. And in one sense, that segment is kind of, you know, ribbing very lightly the art world for its acquisitiveness. But what'd you think of the chemistry between Seydoux and Del Toro?

CHOUDHURY: It's always so tricky to see an incarcerated person fall in love with the police or, like, you know, the face of the force, as it were. So, I mean, I'm always a little uncomfortable with that Stockholm Syndrome-like situation in most films and any narrative. But what I did find very interesting - and they're both, like - you know, it takes the whole muse and artist relationship to an extreme like Wes Anderson does. But I think what I found really interesting about the film in general is the bilinguality (ph) of it. Like - you know, like, Benicio del Toro talks in English. Lea Seydoux speaks in French. And they both understand each other. And of course, there are subtitles, but they're not - I mean, I found that very interesting. And, you know, I don't often - you don't often see that in films. But they, like, understand each other, which I really liked.

WELDON: Right. We should also mention that that first segment is kind of bookended by a fabulously bewigged Tilda Swinton as a kind of art critic giving a lecture. She is doing something with her delivery there to portray a kind of matronly art-world person that just nails it completely. So the second vignette, if you will, the second article, is a story about a student revolution that features Timothee Chalamet as a very kind of young and callow youth revolutionary, and then Frances McDormand as a Mavis Gallant-like writer who becomes romantically entangled with him. What'd you make of that one?

CHOUDHURY: You know, I thought, there's so much humor in that segment, and humor not in a ha-ha-ha, so funny way but very sardonic, very stiff upper-lipped way...

WELDON: Right.

CHOUDHURY: ...In which Frances McDormand is completely on brand with. That bit made me a little uncomfortable, especially after, like, you know, all the protests of last year. And I don't know if it's just too soon for me to see a comic spin on young people coming together and protesting for something and calling for a social change.

WELDON: That's certainly true. It's easy to forget that this film was made almost two years ago, right before the pandemic. It's been delayed for a while. And, you know, as you mentioned, the first story is about Stockholm Syndrome, a prisoner falling in love with this guard. The second one is about youth revolt or at least revolution or protesting. And the final story, which I think is the most effective of the three for me, is about Jeffrey Wright playing a kind of James Baldwin character being interviewed on a kind of Dick Cavett-like show, recounting a time when he was visiting the local police commissioner of Ennui-sur-Blase, and his son gets kidnapped, and he gets dragged along on this very cops-and-robbers story to kind of rescue the kid or at least help rescue the kid. What did you make of this story?

CHOUDHURY: You know, I - that is my favorite bit and not just because I love James Baldwin, but I'm also very interested in the culture of food writing in general.

WELDON: Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: And if you remember that last bit, actually, the article that he's writing is a food story. It's an interview with a chef. So I'm very interested in the politics of it. And, you know, in the end, where Bill Murray's character is like, but this is supposed to be about the food, but this piece is about so much more, and do not just talk of food but the role it plays in our lives, in mitigating tensions in our lives. And then to have a James Baldwin-like figure to talk about food in relation to the loneliness that one feels because of one's skin color or one's sexuality, just being an American in France and, you know, that whole status of being an outsider, which of course, is so aligned with Baldwin's own life and story - I think that piece, that segment, just blew it out of the comic proportions or, like, you know, like you said, the humorous proportions of the film, and it just made it so much bigger for me.

WELDON: Yeah, I completely agree. He hasn't worked with Jeffrey Wright before, but if this film is any indication, he should because Wright manages to adopt the kind of Andersonian (ph) house style - kind of a mannered, deadpan delivery, but he manages to invest it with this - exactly what you were saying - a deep sense of melancholy, a kind of loneliness. He creates this man who clearly has a need for connection that he's channeling into his writing. So that's the heartbeat of this movie, right? That's the thing that makes it something beyond this kind of Rube Goldberg dollhouse that all his films are. I think Wright's performance especially reaches out through the screen and provides the emotional hook that you desperately need if it's going to be something that will stay with you after the lights come up.

CHOUDHURY: Absolutely, absolutely. And, like this - I think Wright's character is the least caricature-ish of - I mean, of course, it's still a caricature, but it's the least caricature-ish of the other journalists that we see in the film.

WELDON: Was there any member of the Anderson-typical-actor stable who showed up that you were just particularly delighted by?

CHOUDHURY: Oh, I mean, Bill Murray, like, he's...

WELDON: Sure.

CHOUDHURY: ...Not on screen too much, but he's such a beautiful glue to all these stories. I love that scene of him interviewing Jeffrey Wright, and even though he has such little screen time, I think that scene pretty much glues all the stories together for me. And, like, you know, his interjection between each segment is absolutely what delights me. And Bill Murray is one person, I think, one actor I can never stop watching.

WELDON: Absolutely. His part feels like it was completely written for him, and I'm sure it was. The film is introduced with a voiceover by Anjelica Huston, and something about sitting in the theater and seeing all this stuff going on and that kind of crazy, assiduous symmetry of every shot composition and hearing Anjelica Huston's voice introducing us to this world. It felt familiar but surprising. And just she is so in control, and she is so missed (laughter).

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

WELDON: That was my favorite moment, that first introductory moment. It's like, oh, that's who I think it is. And, of course, it is. Who else could it be? So again, this film is a love letter, as we said, to The New Yorker magazine, but it is also a real love letter to French cinema, classic French cinema. So the Frenchiness (ph), if you will, is really played up. What'd you make of that?

CHOUDHURY: You know, it is the Frenchiness that's played up, obviously. But it's also not the usual typical Frenchiness that we see, like, you know, in Paris or, like, in Nice that you see in films. There's that bit where Owen Wilson, like, bikes through the town. And he talks of, like, prostitutes. He talks of garbage and everything. So I kind of like that underplaying of - I mean, of course, there is an overplaying of the Frenchiness in terms of the stories and the quirk and the characters. But the Frenchiness of France the place is underplayed so much that I like that. And I think Bill Murray says this, that this is too seedy. This is almost too seedy for our readers.

WELDON: Yep.

CHOUDHURY: I mean, it kind of reminded me of the New York-ness of the pizza rat. Like, nobody wants to talk about it. But it's - I mean, you know, that seediness and that grossness is still such a part of the milieu. And I'm happy that Wes Anderson nods to that.

WELDON: Yeah. Even among all this stylization, there is a restraint because the go-to joke here would - you'd see a lot of people in stripey shirts and berets and baguettes on the back of their bicycles. And this isn't that.

CHOUDHURY: Right.

WELDON: This is something a bit more fully imagined and fanciful - right? - completely fanciful, but grounded in this idea of France that owes a lot to French comics French animation. When Wes Anderson feels a little too uncomfortable to actually stage an actual action set piece, he'll just throw to animation in a very, very fun way. There is also - again, it's artifice upon artifice. There is a section here of a memory that becomes a literal theatrical production, which also owes a little bit to that French vibe that the film has but keeps at a, I would say, even simmer, not a low simmer but an even simmer throughout.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah. And, you know, just on the style of the animations, it's so different from "Isle Of Dogs."

WELDON: Sure.

CHOUDHURY: But also, it - you know, he does it in that "Tintin"-like edge aesthetics that, you know, lives up to or lines up with the Frenchiness of the larger film.

WELDON: So as we mentioned, a number of these characters are inspired by real-life writers. Did you find that distracting? Did they work for you? How'd that play out?

CHOUDHURY: Of course, one doesn't need reminders for this, but I was reminded of the immense whiteness of the legacy of journalism...

WELDON: Oh, sure.

CHOUDHURY: ...And the immense privilege. Like, Bill Murray's character is actually the son of a very rich man who can afford to leave Kansas and just settle in France. So, you know, and if you look at the origin stories of most of these legacy publications that we all read and enjoy, it's a similar story. Like, Baldwin is such an outsider in all of this, and we see him struggling. We even see him being arrested. So I don't know if Wes Anderson wanted this to be conveyed, but watching it in a Wes Anderson film just highlights the whiteness for me so much, the whiteness and the privilege, which, you know, in some small way, I think, journalism is trying to counteract today and thankfully so.

WELDON: Thankfully so. But, I mean, this is a Wes Anderson film. Wes Anderson films are steeped in nostalgia, and that means Wes Anderson being Wes Anderson, there's going to be - you're going to be grappling with privilege. You're going to be grappling with whiteness in a big way. And that is part and parcel of just who he is, so much so that after 10 films, it almost becomes a background knowledge. And it takes something like Jeffrey Wright's Baldwin-esque character to bring you up a little short in a good way (laughter)...

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

WELDON: ...And remind you - bringing in another voice, another perspective even through the scrim, even through the very, you know, narrow sieve of Anderson's point of view, just opens up this world and grounds it in a way that I think Wes Anderson films need to be grounded.

CHOUDHURY: Yes, yes. And it also, like, disrupts the whiteness in a nonabrasive way, which I really appreciated.

WELDON: Well, we want to know what you think about "The French Dispatch." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you, Bedatri, for being here.

CHOUDHURY: Thank you so much, Glen. It's always such a pleasure to be back.

WELDON: It's always a pleasure to have you. And we will see you all tomorrow, when we will be talking about the new Apple+ sci-fi series "Foundation."

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