‘It’s almost like The Beano’: Tilda Swinton and Wes Anderson on The French Dispatch

The ‘liquorice’ auteur’s latest film is a paean to The New Yorker. James Mottram sits down with Anderson and some of his starry cast to discuss what turned out to be his most ambitious film to date

Wednesday 20 October 2021 06:33
<p>Dispatch writers: (from left) Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne are part of a mind-blowing cast </p>

Dispatch writers: (from left) Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne are part of a mind-blowing cast

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When Wes Anderson was 16, he discovered The New Yorker. The weekly magazine, with its lively mix of criticism, reportage and fiction, was life-changing for a young man growing up in Texas. Once he got his new copy, he’d immediately turn to the short stories. “That was always the first thing you read in The New Yorker,” he says. “After the short pieces, it was ‘The Talk of the Town’ and ‘Goings on About Town’.” These columns about cultural events and life in faraway New York fired his imagination.

Over the years, his devotion to The New Yorker fed his cultural life, his films, even his characters. It’s not hard to imagine, say, the family of faded geniuses in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums – the film that brought Anderson the first of his seven Oscar nominations – as regular subscribers. But now he’s used the magazine as a key influence in The French Dispatch, right down to the self-conscious use of The New Yorker typeface. “It’s the bedrock of the film,” says Tilda Swinton, when we meet at the Marriott Hotel in Cannes. Dressed in a turquoise trouser suit, her hair bleached blonde, she’s just one of the myriad stars in Anderson’s dazzling ensemble.

Set in the early 1960s, the film is centred around the offices of the titular publication, which – as hinted by the film’s full title, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun – is a foreign supplement of a midwestern newspaper. Based in the (fictional) French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, this “expatriate magazine”, as Anderson calls it, is edited by one Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray), inspired by The New Yorker’s founding editor Harold Ross, and staffed by the likes of Swinton, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright and Owen Wilson.

The film itself is an anthology movie, each of the three short stories contained within being one of the “articles” in what is meant to be The French Dispatch’s final edition. “The Concrete Masterpiece” sees Swinton’s flame-haired character JKL Berensen reporting on a radical, imprisoned artist (Benicio Del Toro) and his love affair with a prison guard (Léa Seydoux), who poses nude for him. Berensen is inspired by art critic Rosamond Bernier, who lectured at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and ran the influential art magazine L’oeil.

It’s followed by “Revisions to a Manifesto”, in which McDormand’s steely newshound Lucinda Krementz gets entangled with Timothée Chalamet’s student activist. Anderson drew from The Events in May by Mavis Gallant, who covered the May 1968 student protests in France, but he also took inspiration from Cinéma du look, the movement of films by Jean-Jacques Beineix, Luc Besson, Leos Carax and others in the 1980s that swung French cinema in a style-heavy direction.

According to Swinton, it’s a typically unique example of Anderson’s mindset. “You are dealing with not just fantasy, but a cine-fantasy,” she tells me. “So that you have these little twinges. The student revolt… I feel we’ve seen that film before. But the truth is, we haven’t. It hasn’t actually existed. We’ve seen comic strips that have gone there a little bit. And we’ve seen documentary footage of 1968. It’s almost like The Beano feeling… it’s just there in your peripheral vision.” This may be the first – and only – time Anderson has been compared to the comic that brought us Dennis the Menace.

The final “article”, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner”, is even more eccentric and eclectic than its predecessors, as Wright’s James Baldwin-esque reporter Roebuck Wright investigates an oddball tale of food poisoning. With the arch dialogue and artful tableaux-like scenes, it all taps into this idea of Anderson as a “liquorice” filmmaker, as Slate magazine recently put it. You either love him or hate him. “No director now working makes films that more closely resemble that divisive root-based candy than Wes Anderson.”

Mr Liquorice: Anderson photographed before the Cannes premiere of ‘The French Dispatch’ earlier this year

Yet even if Anderson’s quirky worldview isn’t to your taste, it’s impossible to deny just how deeply personal his films are. His love of The New Yorker and similar magazines aside, he’s also a devout Francophile. “I have always wanted to spend time in France, and I always wanted to live in France,” he says. “For years, France has been a big part of my life. I thought, ‘I want to make a movie that uses what I’m learning here,’ because part of why I started going to France in the first place is because I loved French movies. That is part of what hooked me about France.”

Back in the early 2000s, he spent time living in Paris with Jason Schwartzman, who ever since starring in Rushmore has been a regular collaborator (and here plays cartoonist Hermès Jones, who works in the offices of The French Dispatch magazine). They made the short Hotel Chevalier in 2007, with Schwartzman and Natalie Portman as former lovers in a Paris hotel room. The 13-minute film was a narrative precursor to his India-set feature film The Darjeeling Limited, released the same year.

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Since then, Anderson has made two stop-motion animated films – the Roald Dahl adaptation Fantastic Mr Fox and the quirky Japanese tale Isle of Dogs – as well as the New England-set Moonrise Kingdom and the arch ensemble film The Grand Budapest Hotel, which became the biggest hit of his career, taking $172m around the globe. Now, finally, he’s back in France, some 14 years after Hotel Chevalier, crafting what is easily his most ambitious film to date.

Framing with fearful symmetry: Timothee Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri in ‘The French Dispatch'

The cast alone is mind-blowing, with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from Christoph Waltz, Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan and more. Anderson also creates a truly bilingual film, encouraging his fellow Americans to embrace subtitles where possible. “I thought, ‘I want to have some of my favourite French actors [including Léa Seydoux, Lyna Khoudri and Mathieu Amalric] in this and I want to have American actors and I want the French actors to be able to perform in their language and the Americans to perform in theirs.’”

It was also essential to find the right French city to create Ennui-sur-Blasé. Anderson eventually settled on Angoulême, in southwest France. “It’s a city built on levels; there is something special about filming in a place that has depth, where there is always something behind you,” he explains. “The layers work themselves into the background, and it gives you more opportunity to stage things. There is something immediately gripping about a town with staircases and sloped roads and these kinds of things.”

On paper, The French Dispatch looked a simple prospect. “I believe that Wes thought, ‘Oh, this is a group of short films – it’s not so ambitious,’” notes Roman Coppola, a regular co-writer with Anderson. “But I think he came to appreciate that, in the preparation, in the art department and casting, it was four or five films combined. And so the work was compounded.” The production used twice as many sets as any previous Anderson movie. “What seemed simple at first – just do a handful of shorts – became rather complex,” adds Coppola.

An incredible amount of artistry goes into Anderson’s films – particularly The French Dispatch. Much of this can be seen at a new exhibition running in London at the moment, which features original sets from Anderson’s genius production designer Adam Stockhausen and costumes from the four-time Oscar-winner Milena Canonero. You can also pop into Le Sans Blague Café and dine on some French treats seen in the film.

The offices of the New Yorker-inspired French Dispatch, as imagined in Anderson’s new film

Yet while The French Dispatch can feel as sweet and sickly as a mille-feuille, there is substance beneath it all. The film finishes, movingly, with a long list dedicated to writers and editors whose work inspired Anderson. “On that list is Luc Sante, who is not a New Yorker writer, but [a writer for] New York Review of Books and Village Voice,” says Anderson, “and then also on that list are a number of editors, or people who were writers and editors, people who found writers and encouraged them and helped shape the magazine.”

It’s an inspirational moment – one that sums up Anderson’s intention in creating a love letter to the journalism that shaped and inspired him. It’s also his way of showing that the work of these literary titans has not been forgotten. “Any young kid particularly – or anybody who loves this film – I hope they do use that reading list at the end,” says Swinton, “and read, say, James Baldwin.”

If The French Dispatch can inspire anyone to delve into these famed writers, then it’s mission accomplished.

‘The French Dispatch’ opens in cinemas on 22 October. The French Dispatch exhibition runs at 180 The Studios in London until 14 November. Tickets cost £10

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