by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

NYFF 2021 — Dispatch 4: The French Dispatch, Vortex, Belle

Credit: Searchlight Pictures

The French Dispatch

For better or for worse, there are few working American auteurs whose visual stamps are as broadly and immediately recognizable as Wes Anderson. Not even shifting mediums from live-action to stop motion could disguise his trademarks: a meticulous and colorful mise-en-scene captured in symmetrical compositions and as overpopulated by curios as it is by his familiar crew of players who glide into his dollhouse interiors to deliver the type of deadpan, just-subtle-enough to pull a knowing smirk. Likely, it’s this consistency of style — the rougher edges of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums have long been sanded down — that makes it seem like even when Anderson tries something new, like the high-concept short-story anthology of The French Dispatch, it arrives already stale, an effect only exacerbated by sitting under the heat-lamp of a year’s long pandemic-related delay. The “been there done that” quality seeping out from the film’s star-packed trailer is at once unfortunate, as this has one of the most enticing elevator pitches for an Anderson work in some time, and sadly somewhat appropriate given how its vibrant premise gets buried under the lumbering weight of the director’s aesthetics.

The setup is simple, regardless of how complex things get later on, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun‘ is a magazine (a fictional one modeled on The New Yorker) made up of American expats headquartered in a fictional town of post-war France. Its final issue, following the death of founder and editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), forms the blueprint of the film which dutifully pulls us along the periodical’s pages covering an array of cultural subjects from city life to art and politics to food. Anderson, a collector and admirer of The New Yorker since adolescence, has not just created a tonal homage to the institution, but a sophisticated intertwining of his favorite editors, authors, and their iconic writing. Flipping through An Editor’s Burial, a compendium of articles released alongside the film, reveals Anderson’s specific inspirations, featuring pieces by historic New Yorker writers including Luc Sante, Lillian Ross, Mavis Gallant, James Baldwin, and A.J. Liebling — piecemeal evidence of whom can be found composited together by Anderson into the four central chapters and intermittent asides that make up The French Dispatch.

The director’s aforementioned trademark style is present from the get-go, and much like The Grand Budapest Hotel, we are at once met with a gorgeous flurry of pastel-shaded rooms captured on 35mm, framed in Academy ratio, ready to expand into anamorphic wide for cheeky split-screens or a brief moment of spectacle. Back too is the sharp pacing, pushing us from one richly edited set-piece to the next, like the panels in a comic book, an idea crystallized by the animated sequence of the last chapter directly inspired by French comics of the time. Fresh this go-around, is extensive use of black-and-white (found only sparingly in Budapest) for sections of the story sequences, creating magnificent setups for rooms to erupt in color at (quite literally) the flick of a switch. But this rich visual exuberance lays on the film like an intricate layer of frosting coating thick slabs of bland vanilla sponge. What’s so unfortunate about The French Dispatch is how the multitude of distinct authorial styles, themes, subjects, and settings at its source yield and flatten under the weight of Anderson’s propeller-beanie twee, politic, and wit. Lost in the process is the genuine spirit of The New Yorker, at once easy to parody or pastiche, yet hard to nail without versatility and depth beyond the boundaries of Anderson’s toy workshop. 

How could a film whose sense of humor is defined by setting the course of events in “Ennui-sur-Blasé” hope to evoke James Baldwin’s indignity at the laughter of his captors in a Parisian jail? “The laughter is the laughter of those who consider themselves to be at a safe remove from all the wretched, for whom the pain of the living is not real,” Baldwin writes in “Equal in Paris,” an essay Anderson features in An Editor’s Burial and which is hinted at in the film, but one whose central thrust is nowhere to be found. Instead, we are introduced to Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a character composite of Baldwin and A.J. Liebling, who goes on an adventure while dining with a dignified and kind police captain. The brief nod to Baldwin’s imprisonment forms the emotional peak of the film, depicting saintly white savior Howitzer bailing Wright out of jail and giving him a job. An established acquaintance had eventually come to Baldwin’s rescue as well, but the incident, far from being a wellspring of hope in human empathy (as Anderson depicts in his film), had instead solidified for Baldwin that the cruel inequities he’d fled from in New York existed in just as vivid fashion in Paris, thus lending his essay its barbed title.

Let’s take for granted that the whimsical tone and mood of The French Dispatch isn’t cut out to accommodate the righteous passion of Baldwin’s piece — albeit Wright is outfitted with his fashion, speech mannerisms, and allusions to his queerness — but once the process of gutting and assimilating the source material of any of these stories is complete, the individual narratives feel like lifeless, half-baked vehicles for Anderson’s jokes and japes until they have to shuffle off to make room for the next setup. This may work fine for the first two segments, a snappy bicycle tour of the town and a woefully cliche albeit amusing sendup of modern art, but the film hits a real speed bump in the third, wherein Anderson tackles, with similar whimsy and nonchalance, the heft of May 1968 in Paris (notable for the violent suppression of student protests by riot police which led to sympathy strikes blossoming to include millions of workers and pushing the country to the brink of revolution). One could only imagine the response to Anderson’s glib framing (urging students to “go make love instead”) of police brutality had the film followed suit on its mid-summer release in the thick of the George Floyd protests, similarly marked by tear gas, bullets, and batons. Once again, the source material (here the bemused staccato and dark wit of Mavis Gallant’s on-the-ground journals) is betrayed by Anderson’s chintzy shtick, Timothee Chalamet grasping for a towel from the bathtub, him and Frances McDormand bolting to a cartoonish standstill in gas masks as a punchline, riot police and protestors playing a goofy game of chess across the barricades.

At my screening, pockets of laughter occasionally erupted through the audience, proof that Anderson’s comedic rhythms and bits, flimsy as they may be, can still work their magic on some. Those who can disregard the clumsy politics and disappointing follow-through on a great premise will probably find The French Dispatch an amiable trifle, albeit quickly forgettable and lacking the presence of many of his works. Thinking through Anderson’s filmography brings me back to the Baldwin quote from earlier, more so than the encumbered visual style or dry humor, the director’s early works at least bearing some roots in “the pain of living,” an idea clearest in how his greatest achievement, The Royal Tenenbaums, is remembered less so for the sophisticated cinematic grammar than its pervasive portrait of loneliness, familial tragedy, and doomed love. In the thick Rolodex of Wes Anderson characters over the last twenty years, few exist as vividly in memory as Richie and Margot Tenenbaum, and if his films continue down this current trajectory, we have little hope of seeing any like them again.

Writer: Igor Fishman


Credit: Wild Bunch

Vortex

It’s become somewhat typical for the critical discourse surrounding Gaspar Noé’s films to be less about artistic merit than ethical concerns regarding their often charged depictions of bodily abuse — which, to be fair, should be attributed to wide-ranging shifts in analytical conceptions regarding cinema as a whole and not simply finger-wagging at the premier enfant terrible of the New French Extremity movement. But his distinct desire for pronounced provocation has always been rooted — and, to a degree, can only properly function — in a lawless territory of sorts: one outside the commonplace practices and understanding of ethics and morals, one removed from any widely-accepted beliefs in virtue. Depending on one’s views on portrayals of sexual violence, one could consider this a general worldview characterized by bitter, juvenile nihilism; but make no mistake, Noé himself is always deeply serious about this attitude, even when the more conventional dramatic elements of his works (the often risible dialogue, his character’s motivations, how “believable” any of their actions are) tend to border on sophomoric. 

Again, Noé’s interests lie somewhat apart from conventional practice: Unlike most who engage in commercial narrative cinema (to even lay claim that Noé does is a bit of a stretch), his tendency is to stimulate, to call attention to the physical relationship between the viewer and what’s being viewed, even if it produces some rather nonsensical results. If there’s a studiousness in his oeuvre, it comes via his strict formalism, which in and of itself borders on extreme. But that’s always in service of the given content: his form always serves as a conduit for a more penetrating understanding of his material. As fellow Frenchman Robert Bresson once put it during an interview on Cinépanorama, “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it. I’d rather feelings arise before intellect.” Noé, in that regard, is all affect and little acumen. His latest, Vortex, expectedly follows suit and can be seen as a companion piece to 2018’s Climax: both are essentially body-horror films about the involuntary loss of one’s own bodily autonomy, an inevitable fate for both young and old. 

Here, perdition manifests in the form of dementia, ravaging the mind of an elderly woman (played by Françoise Lebrun) and the mental stability of her caring, if inattentive husband (Dario Argento). They’re never named, hinting at a broad sense of universality to their misfortune, but there are specifics to consider. He’s an academic, writing a book on the link between “cinema and dreams,” who’s more distressed about meeting his publishing deadline than he is with his wife’s wellbeing. (Like most supposed intellectuals, he’s ill-equipped to deal with conflicts that operate outside of a strict sense of established logic.) She’s a pharmacist, over-prescribing a myriad of potent medications to herself, attempting to impede her eventual deterioration. They have one son (Alex Lutz), a recovering heroin addict, who too is financially and emotionally unstable for his parents to directly rely upon. The couple, who live in a cramped Parisian apartment lined with musty books and disheveled papers, must enter, experience, and endure this moribund spiral by themselves. While this may constitute a spoiler — though, considering the given trajectory, what else would one expect? — their living quarters eventually become their tombs, and we bear witness to the end of their lives. Their deaths are not sentimentalized, nor is there much moralistic musing. If anything, Vortex is primarily concerned with fundamental cinematic qualities of its basic premise: that of a lived-in, haptic experience, one propelled not by internal conflict, but by external forces acting upon an individual’s sense of perception and kinaesthesia.

To heighten this sensorial approach, Noé employs a rigid, and thematically apropos, formal gambit. Most of the film is presented as a dual-screen ordeal, with an opening introduction scene in widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) before shrinking into two Fox Movietone compositions (1.2:1) with the arrival of a literal dividing line: the duo are in bed, side-by-side, until a black border comes crashing down, forever separating the two with an external boundary neither could ever hope to remove. After this, we witness events locked from two restricted perspectives: one screen follows the wife as she wanders around their apartment and the city at large, the other tracks the husband as he goes about his daily activities (the son gets thrown into the mix as well, adding some much-needed visual and narrative variety). Even when they’re in the same room, there’s a distinct delineation in spatial perspective between the two screens. In other words, even when they’re together, they’re apart.

There are precedents for this aesthetic style, albeit mostly in experimental cinema. Paul Sharits’ Razor Blades comes to mind: it begins as one whole screen before splitting off onto two apparatuses of information, finally ending in the same form as it began (all while requiring two separate projectors for the entire runtime). But the project most akin to Noé’s goals here is Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s three-hour-dual-projected behemoth Chelsea Girls, as both are largely spontaneous exercises in pushing the boundaries of moviegoers’ comfort. Most of Vortex‘s dialogue was improvised, and it often shows, further stretching the film’s already deliberate pace; unlike Climax, it features no psychedelic freak-outs or really anything grotesque or outlandish enough to overtly rupture the proceedings. It’s a slow, placid work that displays old age as-is: a mundane demise that robs one of their cerebral capacities, marked by boredom and increasing repetition, with the aforementioned dividing line serving to further illustrate a receding frame of reference towards the world at large. 

Many will find this “novel” presentation morally dubious, but again, Noé doesn’t trade on conventional notions of integrity. He deals with the here and now, with the uncomfortable realities of the world as is, one away from such comfortable bourgeoisie notions of “good taste.” He deemed this method the most appropriate way to transmit such anguish to spectators, so while this, on a superficial level, may be his most humane effort — a label that wrongly suggests he’s never cared for any of his previous characters except in a callously cruel manner — Vortex is nevertheless as viscerally bracing as the provocateur’s previous efforts, imbued also with a new sense of restraint that even his most stark detractors would be hard-pressed to outright discredit.

Writer: Paul Attard


Belle

If there’s anything to be gleaned from Belle, it’s this: Mamoru Hosoda has thoughts about the internet. The new film from the anime auteur centers around a social media app called U, a virtual reality space in which users appear as an avatar that, roughly, resembles their inner selves. The technological specifics of the device — how are these teenage characters, augmented with only a cell phone and a pair of earbuds, managing to occupy both reality and cyberspace simultaneously? — is left blessedly unexplained as Hosoda is less concerned with his science fiction paradigm than with what he wants to say. His messaging is even-handed but overstuffed, for as much trouble as the internet might cause, its potential for self-discovery and human connection is nearly boundless. In Hosoda’s vision, the internet can allow someone to be closer to their true selves than in reality, and so it’s no wonder that the superhero police (hilariously backed by a roster of sponsors that fill the screen) who patrol U mete out punishment by revealing users’ identities.

What’s frustrating, then, is that none of this is very interesting, even if his measured take is better than the technophobic finger-wagging most films about social media indulge in. The film concerns Suzu, a shy teenage girl who logs onto U and is transformed into Belle, who can sing beautifully, something Suzu herself hasn’t been able to do since the death of her mother. It’s not long before she crosses paths with the Beast, a monster covered in bruises and resembling an anime take on the Disney character, and sets about uncovering his identity. But while this futuristic recreation of Beauty and the Beast looks characteristically good, if familiar — Hosoda’s movies often look like standard anime that lacks the distinct strokes of similarly profiled peers, like Shinkai’s beautiful skies or Yuasa’s, well, everything — these sections come off as unimaginative and overbearing compared to the sweet, fully-realized mundane happenings back in reality. The teenage love triangles and familial relationships that make up Suzu’s offline life could easily be their own movie, with any given scene between Suzu and her computer nerd friend Hiroka holding more life than any of the supposedly exciting stuff happening online. The film’s best scene, a long static shot that finds characters exiting and reentering the frame during an awkward conversation, is uproariously funny but makes the film’s return to virtual space afterwards all the more disappointing.

As its A-plot reaches its ending, Hosoda rejects the simple, obvious bow to which the story was seemingly leading in favor of a ridiculous conclusion to the Beast’s mystery that allows the director to make yet another heavy-handed statement on 21st century living to cheap, maudlin ends. In seeking to further combine the movie’s threads narratively — as if their connection weren’t already abundantly clear — Hosoda decides upon a baffling, ruinous ending that exposes Belle as a leaden mess of abject sentimentality.

Writer: Chris Mello


Credit: Ed Lachman

Songs for Drella

I’m sorry if I doubted your good heart / Things always seem to end before they start.” A ruefully apologetic Lou Reed sings these words to the recently deceased Andy Warhol during “Hello It’s Me,” the final track of Songs for Drella, Reed and John Cale’s song cycle created in tribute to their former collaborator and mentor Warhol. This song also accompanies the emotional final moments of director/cinematographer Ed Lachman’s 1990 concert film, which shares the title of the piece that it documents. Originally shot for British television and assembled from two days of rehearsals and one live performance night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1989, Songs for Drella represents a perfect union of music, performance, and visuals, emphasizing the stripped-down, elemental qualities of the piece. Lachman’s elimination of the presence of an onscreen audience enhances the film’s intimate feel, its close-ups beautifully conveying the deep, fractious history between Reed and Cale, which comes through in their glances at each other as they perform their material.

The Songs for Drella album cover is a portrait of Reed and Cale, with the ghostly presence of Andy Warhol hovering behind them. Appropriately, Warhol is an unseen third participant alongside the corporeal performers in the film, who sing and play their instruments onstage in a dark void, with just a screen projecting images above their heads. As much as the music stylistically recalls Reed and Cale’s work as bandmates in The Velvet Underground, Lachman’s images recall Warhol’s films, which often consisted of simple, minimal set-ups depicting mundane human activities such as eating, sleeping, and kissing. “Style It Takes,” sung by Cale, lyrically charts the intersection between Warhol’s art, his films, and the music of the Velvet Underground: “This is a rock group called The Velvet Underground / I show movies on them, do you like their sound? / Cause they have a style that grates / And I have art to make.” The song concludes with Cale repeating, “You’ve got the style it takes,” while Reed chants titles of Warhol’s films: Kiss, Eat, Couch.

The seeds for Songs for Drella were planted shortly after Warhol’s death in 1987, when Reed and Cale met at Warhol’s funeral, not having performed together or barely even spoken with one another since Cale’s 1968 departure from the Velvet Underground. Soon afterward, they began discussing the possibility of performing together again on a set of songs dedicated to Warhol. The work that resulted was an often affectionate homage, relating stories of Warhol’s life chronologically, covering his escape from his stultifying Pittsburgh origins to the much more accepting environment of New York City, his development as an artist and the creative exploits of his Factory, his shooting by Valerie Solanas, and finally his death following gallbladder surgery. However, this was no sentimental, hagiographic portrait, as evidenced by the title itself: “Drella,” a nickname for Warhol coined by his “superstar” Ondine, was a contraction of Dracula and Cinderella, reflecting Warhol’s perceived dual nature, as a magnetic, attractive personality who lived voyeuristically through others and used others in vampiric fashion. Warhol reportedly did not like this nickname, which gives the title of this homage a very barbed edge; accordingly, Reed and Cale are very open in these songs about their complicated and thorny relationship with Warhol.

Songs for Drella is aesthetically a deeply satisfying experience, the starkly minimalistic music — the only instrumentation is Reed’s guitar and Cale’s keyboards and electric viola — forming an ideal marriage with Lachman’s elemental yet unerringly precise camerawork. In “Images,” Lou Reed sings, “I love multiplicity of screenings / Things born anew display new meanings / I think images are worth repeating and repeating and repeating.” And now that Reed, Cale, and Lachman’s classic work has been born anew with a fantastic 4K restoration, one hopes that Lachman’s wonderful images can be endlessly repeated for appreciative audiences.

Writer: Christopher Bourne

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