Currently, an enterprising gallery on The Strand in London is capitalizing on love for Wes Anderson’s latest film, The French dispatch, with an exhibition of – well, what exactly? There are meticulously executed miniature sets, including the printing house that produces the eponymous magazine. There is a full-size newspaper kiosk directly from Godard Breathless (1960) and some costumes: a red suit worn by Frances McDormand as an uncompromising press reporter mixing it with the young revolutionaries of 1968; the muslin dress in which Tilda Swinton’s absurdly capped art critic lectures.
Most of the time, however, there are props. I want to call them memories, but you don’t remember them: these are stuff from a movie that ended less than two years ago, after all. Thing. The hardware includes pre-war leather camera cases and a foghorn so old it may have come from the previous war, a 60s transistor radio, a salt shaker with a dachshund head that may have come from from the 1930s.
The desk where Bill Murray sits as the editor of The French dispatch, Arthur Howitzer, jnr, is placed next to a board covered with index cards attached with pins. We’re probably in a pre-post-it era, but it doesn’t have to be specific. It is about imaginative memory, where nothing is anachronistic because everything corresponds to the vision. The unifying factor is that these are all things that Wes Anderson loves.
The magazine in The French dispatch is modeled on The New Yorker, up to the font; the film ends with a list of contributor names which is both a tribute and a playlist. The New Yorker is something Wes Anderson loves very much. He grew up in Houston, Texas; her father worked in advertising and her mother sold real estate. He discovered The New Yorker in his school library – the same private school he would end up exploiting for the irony of his film Rushmore (1998) – and was drawn to the fact that they had designs on the covers. He read one and got hooked.
The magazine’s sensitivity, which remains unique, was a breath from another life – metropolitan, cultured, internationalist, intellectually inclined – even though, as an aspiring writer, he always read fiction first. A few years later, while at the University of Austin and a confirmed subscriber, he discovered that the University of California, Berkeley was selling hardcover copies of the magazine dating back 40 years. He bought them all for US $ 600 – a godsend 30 years ago, perhaps, but a considerable sum for a student.
There were two other reasons for the film, Anderson said in a recent interview with the magazine itself. He wanted to make a movie about The New Yorker; quite apart from that, he also wanted to make an omnibus film with related but separate stories, which fortuitously combine with the idea of ââa feature film magazine; he also wanted to make a film in France.
A large number of The New Yorker ‘The writers had lived in Paris, of course, like Anderson himself for several years. “In Paris, every time I walk in a street that I don’t know well, it’s like going to the movies,” he told his interviewer. âIt’s just entertaining. There is also a kind of isolation abroad, which can be good or bad. He can be lonely, sure. But you are also always in some sort of adventure, which can be inspiring. With everything else, The French dispatch concerns the expatriation experience.
âBuilding a worldâ is a hot cinematic term right now, possibly thanks to a trickle-down effect from game design. But Anderson has been building worlds, imaginatively and literally, for decades; all his films take place in an indefinable elsewhere, going back to the flat and suburban parallel universe of Rocket in bottle (1996). It was his feature debut, about a gang of would-be thieves directed, as now seems inevitable, by Owen Wilson, who also co-wrote the screenplay.
The larger the budget, the more detailed and wacky the worlds he was able to build. The washed-out Edwardian New York interiors of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and a dream train crossing India in Darjeeling Limited (2007) were remarkable, but The Grand Hotel Budapest (2014) took her favorite shabby glamor to a new level.
With its four adjacent floors, The French dispatch is four times more elaborate, in particular taking into account certain imposed requirements: a barricaded street with cobblestones torn off for the riots of 1968, for example.
The shooting took place in AngoulÃªme in the southwest of France. According to The New York Times, Anderson was looking for a place that looked like Paris, but a Paris that no longer exists outside of period films like The red balloon (1956), “with nooks and crannies, corridors, passages, stairs, layers and ramparts”, to quote producer Jeremy Dawson. The sets built around the nooks and crannies made possible the symmetrical framing of Anderson’s signature. Blueprints of the real buildings have also been digitally merged with miniatures like the one included in the exhibit, which turns a rue d’AngoulÃªme into a gothic heap, stripped of anything even slightly modern.
Of course, no one would believe that a magazine like The New Yorker could be released first in Kansas – supposedly, The French dispatch is an expat spin-off of a beloved magazine of corn growers – let alone in a provincial town in France. The town is called Boredom-on-Blase, a sort of not quite Wes Anderson pun. Many writers themselves ring true: Howitzer is a mixture of the magazine’s irascible first editor, Harold Ross, and his successor gentleman, William Shawn, while Frances McDormand’s report on the 1968 student uprisings quotes directly his referent in real life, Mavis Galant.
But a cycling correspondent? It’s Owen Wilson, Anderson’s former roommate, who worked on eight of his films and loves cycling. And while The New Yorker has certainly always had a restaurant reviewer – here played by Jeffrey Wright as a combination of AJ Liebling and James Baldwin – none of them have ever been involved in a police kidnapping that includes Saoirse Ronan locked in a pantry.
“You are not really dealing with reality,” said Tilda Swinton, who is about to shoot her fifth film with Anderson, at a press conference in Cannes. âYou are dealing with a film fantasy – and he is so aware of the cinema that there is a lexicon of images to draw on. “
Benicio Del Toro, who plays a prison inmate for the alienated and foreign artist, the subject of a French expedition history, remembers Anderson urging Jean Renoir Boudu saved from drowning (1932) in his hand, telling him to channel the suicidal tramp of Michel Simon. While filming, Anderson left a small stack of DVDs outside the hotel dining room for the cast and crew: reference material.
The dining room itself has significance. Group meals are the central pillar of another world that Anderson created: his traveling show. It always turns in one place, preferably isolated, with everyone in the same hotel and meeting for dinner like a theater troupe. Most of the actors are regulars. Bill Murray has directed 10 films with Anderson. Although it plays a central role in the French expedition together he would have ensured – as he always does – that all of his scenes could be done in a matter of days. Then he stayed in AngoulÃªme for a week.
There is some indication of how unusual this atmosphere is in Del Toro’s admission that as a newcomer to Wes World, he initially had no idea when he might leave the dinner table. âI ate and waited for everyone to start leaving. I say, ‘Wes, it’s midnight, I have to get up at six!’ He said, “You can leave at any time.” After that, I loved it.
This sense of being a business also supports Anderson’s directing style, which requires the actors to coordinate as closely as a Broadway chorus. “So many things are unique,” says Adrien Brody, whose role as an art dealer is his fourth in a Wes Anderson film. âTechnically most movies cover every shot with close-ups and coverage, so you can cut around the performance and timing in the editing room. What Wes creates is this choreography where you interact with very precise timing, while you also have this volume of words to get across. Three more actors are playing, then the camera rushes over to me and I have to nail it, or I dropped the ball for everyone. It’s a huge challenge, but a great thrill. We have to support each other. “
The point is, says Swinton, the film is in his head. For some filmmakers, this is not true. Some filmmakers have to see what they don’t want to understand what they’re doing. Or they resolve it in conversation which is also a really nice way to work. But Wes has some kind of – I was going to say sickness, but it’s a problem. It’s in there and he’s got to get it out of his ear. He must be able to say, ‘OK, this is happening now. Benicio, can you take this piece? Adrien, you take this. I need your help because I can’t get it out on my own, but it’s in there. ‘
Talk about world building. The entirety of Wes Anderson’s world, the rhythm of each speech and the patina of each prop, arrives fully formed, probably until the last pin of the last card, at the start of the film. The exhibit – the stuff – is just the leftovers. âIt must be mental to have a brain like that,â Swinton said fondly. Brody agrees. âIt must be a huge job. “
The French dispatch is in theaters from December 9.
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