Cannes Diary—Day 7: The Madcap Beauty of The French Dispatch, and the Actor-Doctor Helping in a Pandemic

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In which our Festiville correspondent Brian Formo dispatches his thoughts on Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, and reconnects with patience thanks to Ryusuke Hamaguchi.

This morning, after being kept up much later than expected due to Euro 2020 celebrations, a little poke on Letterboxd sent me down an Internet wormhole before starting my next movie day.

Anders Danielsen Lie stars in two of the best In Competition titles (so far): The Worst Person in the World and Bergman Island. I only knew the actor previously from his fantastic work in Oslo, August 31st. Danielsen Lie is equally very, very good in his two very different performances at Cannes. He’s the romantic lead in both films: in Bergman Island, he has control over when the desire can be released for both parties, which drives Mia Wasikowski mad. In The Worst Person in the World, he is at the mercy of the desires of his partner, including whether to have a child or not. 

I got up this morning and looked at Danielsen Lie’s other credits on Letterboxd and right there in his biography it says, “Anders Danielsen Lie (born 1 January 1979) is a Norwegian actor, musician and medical doctor.” One of the actors having the best Cannes is both an actor and a doctor. This sent me into an I gotta-know-more episode. Turns out, Danielsen Lie is doing exactly what his romantic partner (Renate Reinsve) in The Worst Person in the World wants to do: have two different careers at the same time. He told Deadline that “maybe I have some different perspectives that not all actors have. I feel like I have a foot in the real world; I’ve met many people in difficult situations and I feel that I’ve learned a lot about acting from practicing as a doctor.” Danielsen Lie has been doing this double gig for so long because he can’t choose which he likes more, telling Deadline: “It’s a choice I should have made many years ago, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to make that choice yet, so this creates some challenges for me every now and then, on both sides.” 

Doctors have been on my mind lately because I recently had to have an abdominal surgery, without which I wouldn’t have been able to attend Cannes this year. While the American healthcare system is a bureaucratic nightmare, I was able to secure surgery fifteen days before leaving for Paris—the recovery time was fourteen days. With that timeline, it feels like a minor miracle that I’m even here. I walked up to eleven miles a day through Paris streets, and I can sit through a three-hour movie without painkillers or ice—two things I could not do six weeks ago.

Danielsen Lie has been assisting with the Covid-19 vaccination system in Oslo, so hats off not just for his very good performances here, but also his good deeds. Unfortunately, there is another performer with multiple films at Cannes, who cannot attend because she contracted Covid, on set, mere days ago. Léa Seydoux has four films playing at the festival and will only travel if doctors allow her to after multiple days of negative tests. Though not present for The French Dispatch, her upcoming titles include Arnaud Desplechin's Deception, Ildiko Enyedi's The Story of My Wife and Bruno Dumont's France.

Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for...

The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is a flood of descriptors and details; you can be overwhelmed or just go with it. Amid an avalanche of actors, the largest roles in the anthology ensemble are allotted to Benicio Del Toro, Adrien Brody, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand, and Jeffrey Wright

It’s the story of expat American journalists, reporting to Bill Murray’s editor and publisher, covering French culture, politics, and food in a New Yorker style. Anderson’s film is essentially one issue of a magazine, with each section not so much acted out but rather blown out. I think it’s the best-looking film Wes Anderson has ever made; mixing black-and-white photography, Tintin animation, bright pastels, miniatures, and frank (not shy) sexuality. Sometimes there’s so much packed into every frame, you’re not even sure what the story is anymore. But it doesn’t matter because every detail is so meticulous, and our awareness of the type of film it is makes the brisk and impersonal pacing permissible. 

The black-and-white and use of negative space is such a welcome look for Anderson, who often stuffs so much into every scene. While it retains the heightened design quality of sensual excess, this frequent New Wave framing approach does mix in lots of new looks for the auteur. After a few stumbled introductions that work like a table of contents, including an Owen Wilson bike tour of Anderson’s made-up French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, Anderson sinks into a pleasure dome groove for the lengthier stories. 

There’s the story of a prison artist, his art dealer, and his muse (Del Toro, Brody, and Seydoux) told by Swinton as the article writer; then a very Wes Anderson appraisal of the 1968 student rebellion with fewer politics outside of access to the girls’ dorms and desire for perfect manifesto language—this is Chalamet’s section, told by McDormand as the author. And then there’s a kidnapping story that’s supposed to be about food. The latter features Wright, one of the most criminally under-used actors for decades. He is an absolutely perfect actor for Anderson’s pastiche. With a jaunty score, Alexandre Desplat outdoes himself, too. 

The French Dispatch lies somewhere in between the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Like Caesar! the film affords Anderson many different styles, from film noir, to a stage production, to the comic panels of The Adventures of Tintin. For me, it's a little overwhelming—Anderson just sets down the track and puts the train on full steam—but it's a complete joy to watch, though emotionally more distant than he has ever been (due to the anthology structure). 

From a few other early Letterboxd reviews, Claudia Goldsmith raved about the “astonishing colors and production design” (as well as the Timothée Chalamet shower scene). Though Jordan Ruimy found it minor amongst the director’s work, he still applauded it as “a chaotic burst of madcap energy. Every frame felt like a painting. In fact, maybe Wes Anderson’s most detail-oriented film, and that’s saying something.” Finally, Adam Solomons calls it “a big delight” and Iana Murray labels it “a delectable tribute to journalism.”

Drive My Car

Being back in a movie theater again, which is the only place that allows me to completely focus entirely on a movie, is a general highlight of Cannes 2021. With the lights down and the projector on, I am completely enveloped. At home, I think of tasks, reach for my phone, hit pause, order food. I multi-task. In a theater the only job is to watch, think, and be transported. Walking or driving away is always key to my moviegoing experience, too. When the lights come up, I could feel slightly baffled by a film but by the time I’ve turned the key at home (or in this case, my temporary home), I have processed so much more, to the point where bafflement can move to appreciation, perhaps even to love, or at least, a strong desire to watch again. Because most of the films are delicate slow burns this year (The French Dispatch excluded), Cannes is forcing me to reconnect with my analytical brain. I think slow cinema (in the cinema) helps me get in touch with some of the best parts of myself, including existing with patience. 

Drive My Car requires patience. It is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami (Burning) that’s elongated into a three-hour film about a playwright, his method of learning lines, and his sex life that helps his wife create her stories. It is only the second film that I’ve seen by Ryusuke Hamaguchi. The other was Asako I & II, a teenaged jolt of a movie in the vein of Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismäki. Bizarre, funny, and in touch with the bizarre and funny things that young love inspires. Drive My Car is not in the same wheelhouse, so I’m not sure what the filmmaker’s known style is, or if he’s a chameleon, but what I appreciate about Drive My Car is how repetition—of driving, of learning lines, of sex—is used as the entry point for an earned character arc. The lengthy runtime allows mundane activities to eventually reveal a natural and earned admission from a character.

Ultimately, Drive My Car is about acceptance. Of mistakes, of the mistakes of others. As someone who works out their thoughts through movement, and a drive in particular, this makes sense to me. And toward the end there are some monumental driving scenes, through tunnels, cigarettes through the open roof. The artistic elements of the play are what elongate the movie into a massive runtime, but the stage readings are also the least interesting aspects of the film. A cycle of repetition is key to the film, but the payoffs are more from the actions of others that break our protagonist’s routines. 

Letterboxd reactions have been all over the place, which is to be expected from such a film. Carlos Valladares writes that he’s “not been so moved in a long time.” Luke Hicks calls it “narratively rich yet simple.” And Arvena says it’s “long as hell and very theatrical, but still not so bad.” But David Jenkins declares that the bar for 2021 has been set.

Tomorrow, Julia Ducournau’s Titane promises to put out the slow burns with a fire hose on full blast. Unfortunately, there is no press conference for The French Dispatch. The film will just speak for itself here. And I will just walk the cobblestone streets and climb the stairs, open a window, and let the ocean breeze in.

Bonne nuit.