Harlan Jacobson reports from The Cannes Film Festival 2021: Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch

CANNES, Saturday July 17 –
By Harlan Jacobson

Waiting for The French Dispatch, which held over for a year from the Cannes that wasn’t in 2020, has been talked about in some circles as one of the key cinema torments of Covid 19, not equal to the dislocation if not outright suspension of animation and death of civilization, but definitely in the mix.

Having seen it at last, on a day that began with Babi Yar: Context at 8:30 AM -- an early hour to revive my just under the surface resolve as king to deal harshly with neo-Nazis. The day then moved on to Oliver Stone’s JFK Revisited, which adds to one’s cumulative rage no matter what one thinks about the topic. Only then did it end in the evening with Wes Anderson and the highly anticipated The French Dispatch, which after a year in the freezer finally got its Competition screening. It’s not quite enough to say after a day like that, “Wow, that’s Cannes for ya,” or “What a great movie day, shut up!” The double whammy set-up is like taking guns to a fifth birthday party, pointing the guns at the Mom and saying, “I’ll have that big slice of vanilla cake and a pink balloon, please.” Exactly like that.

The French Dispatch’s through line of episodes surrounding the life and death of a fictional literary magazine, which is the product of one Arthur Howitzer, Jr., the renegade son of the editor of The Liberty, Kansas Sun, who turns his back on his cornfield legacy and instead gets caught up in the literary expat migration to Paris to start his own literary American magazine that becomes a towering force in the mid-20th Century intellectual life of the New York Smart Set from its base in another small town, Ennui-sur-Blasé, outside of Paris…Ok, see, there it is, a stupefying cascade of information coming at you off a screen that is a pinwheel of visuals that made my brain hurt to keep up. And that was just the first minute’s set-up.

Anderson has, I think, reversed the direction the vector of engagement usually travels, which is toward the screen. Other films have done this, not quite in this way or for his reasons. Suffice it to say I quit taking notes one page in, which is not a bad thing, after all. At a meta-level, I couldn’t help but stand outside it while watching it and asking who’s this film for, or differently, are people who aren’t Wes Anderson devotees, or New Yorker magazine intimates, going to stay with it? Their cells are well padded, and don’t get me wrong, I count myself in. The French Dispatch is all that I imagine a perfect Hasty Pudding production or an elite college class night play with unlimited time and budget could be. And all 200 of us in a rarefied space will be flattened in our seats and gobsmack dazzled. Sucker nailed The New Yorker, all right.

Cast of thousands, just everyone is in it – Benicio Del Toro, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Adrian Brody, Tilda, the dread Timothée, Léa Seydoux (her fourth Cannes film this year), Owen Wilson natch, Mathieu Amalric, Bill Murray, Liev Schreiber, Ed Norton, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Saoirse Ronan, Hippolyte Girardot, Elizabeth Moss, Christoph Waltz, Fisher Stevens, Cécile from France, Jason Schwartzman, the Fonz, Bob Balaban -- which starts to feel like birdwatching. Is that the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, I see?

My last note before I slumped over was, “Could spend a year watching this every day and still think you missed whatever that just was.” I need to see this one again on a day when I haven’t seen two other films, as cited above, in a different time zone.

A Searchlight release in theatres, Oct. 22.