Director Wes Anderson is back in the game with his boldest, brightest, most bizarre project yet: The French Dispatch, a film anthology of stories from a fictional newspaper (loosely based on The New Yorker) operating out of a fictional French city (obviously based on Paris) in the middle of the 20th Century, playing witness to some of the most explosive moments in the nation’s history. The abstract and absurdist comedy stars a massive cast of A-list talent, and employs a number of curious camera-tricks, as well as being partly shot in black-and-white.
Bill Murray stars as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, who went on a holiday and never came back to his home-state of Kansas: instead, he turned his travelogue column into The French Dispatch, which appears to be a semi-satirical weekly newspaper chronicling “world politics, the arts (high and low), and diverse stories of human interest”. He is surrounded by a star-studded cast playing his small army of editors, journalists, columnists, sources and the local characters they interact with on the streets of Paris, including Tilda Swinton (wearing a very bright orange wig), Benicio Del Toro as an artist imprisoned in a padded cell, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Timothée Chalamet already working on his Bob Dylan impersonation, Léa Seydoux as a stone-cold police officer, Owen Wilson, Mathieu Amalric, Liev Schrieber, Elisabeth Moss, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Christoph Waltz, Henry Winkler and Saoirse Ronan, among many others. Not all of this cast are comedians, but all of them look like they’re about to be.
This trailer certainly makes it look like The French Dispatch will be a memorable cinematic experience – not only because of its extraordinarily weird cinematography and quirky visuals, but because I can’t wait to see the interactions between this amazing cast: Tilda Swinton and Henry Winkler in the same movie? Timothée Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan reunited onscreen for the umpteenth time? Count me in.
So what do you think? Does The French Dispatch look too weird for your taste, or do you think this looks stupendously strange? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!
In the eyes of history buffs, The King will probably be a decent, if boringly conventional retelling of a fascinating story from the vaults of Medieval history. For fans of Shakespeare, this interpretation of the bard’s work, watered down in the telling, will probably be a bland disappointment. But in my opinion, the movie, while not particularly fresh or exciting, is worth a watch merely for the performances from Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson, accompanied by Nicholas Britell’s beautiful score. And if you find yourself drifting off in the first half of the movie, with its interminable gray color palette, dreary dialogue and half-hearted brutality – simply fast forward to when Pattinson shows up about an hour in, at which point the movie finally sheds some of its solemn trappings, develops a faint splash of color, and actually gets interesting.
The story itself is classic: the brief, tumultuous reign of King Henry V (Timothée Chalamet) of England, who stormed and nearly conquered France in 1415. But with two versions of the story out there – the historical account, and Shakespeare’s heavily fictionalized version – the film goes for the least interesting option: trying to blend the two into one coherent whole, using historical realism to set the scene, but sticking faux-Shakespearean dialogue into the mouths of its actors, who, to their credit, actually make it sound halfway decent – up to a point. Director David Michôd and writer and star Joel Edgerton haven’t made anywhere near enough additions or alterations to the story, and as a result The King often feels like it’s treading on well-worn ground – or rather, sinking in the muddy field of Agincourt, weighed down by plate armor and brooding plot. To put it simply, the movie isn’t particularly fun, and it doesn’t have much room to breathe. But what it lacks in originality of voice, it makes up for with the casting of two stellar performers.
Chalamet embodies the young king of England with a stone-cold solemnity that sets the tone for the whole movie – the rest of the movie, however, fails to achieve the same balance of neutrality and watchability as Chalamet does consistently. Rather, the movie itself begins to fall away and fade into fog, while Chalamet’s Henry becomes more clearly defined with each passing minute, until, in its closing scenes, he is the only life it has left. And what life he possesses! Typically seen as a dewy-eyed Hollywood heartthrob, Chalamet is here a gaunt, pale figure with leering eyes that disguise a heart longing for peace in his time – he is at times inspiring (as when he rallies his men for battle on the morn of Agincourt, using dialogue that is nowhere near as impressive as the St. Crispin’s Day speech his character utters in Shakespeare’s play but still sounds good because it’s Timothée Chalamet), or terrifying (as when he confronts his dying father in the latter’s bedchamber, ripping the sheets away from the bed, letting the old man shiver and tremble as the life slips from his body). But he is always a commanding presence onscreen, never rivaled by any of his castmates until Pattinson enters the picture, challenging Chalamet’s calm with a startlingly zany performance that turns The King into one of 2019’s most unexpectedly weird movies.
Pattinson, another actor trying to reshape his image in the public conscious, is a terrifying/hysterically funny revelation in his role as the Dauphin of France. Other reviewers are conflicted about his portrayal of the character, saying he ruins the serious nature of the film, or, alternatively, is its one saving grace. A callous, sadistic idiot, the Dauphin somehow manages to seem like an absolutely credible and formidable force even while being an unabashed peacock, strutting about in fancy black armor, laughing like a maniac and grinning dumbly at his own offensive jokes. But while I personally loved Pattinson’s portrayal, I can easily understand why critics can’t decide whether they love him or hate him – his performance is so deliberately exaggerated that it feels like it must be saying something, or attempting to: but what? If he’s merely trying to insult the French, then at least he’s made Shakespeare happy.
(Something that struck me in Pattinson’s first scene in The King, while he was busy talking about how he wanted to drain Henry’s body of its blood and bury it under a tiny French tree, was how happy I am that he will be soon be the DCEU’s new Batman: immediately after thinking that, Pattinson turned his head in such a way that it almost appeared that he had elf-ears for a fleeting moment – and that, coupled with his long blond wig, impressive eyebrows and sinuous physicality, made me gasp, pause the movie and go on Twitter to express my regret that Pattinson had not been cast as Sauron in Amazon Prime’s upcoming Lord Of The Rings prequel series. I’m sorry I have to bring everything back to LOTR, but this is something that I cannot now unsee and cannot ever forgive Pattinson or Amazon Prime for: just think of the beautiful young Sauron that might have been, gifted with Pattinson’s charismatic craziness! It would have been perfect).
The supporting cast is okay, though the only other standout is Ben Mendelsohn as the aging King Henry IV. Joel Edgerton’s Falstaff is made out to be the film’s Everyman archetype, but the character is boring and lifeless (and Edgerton’s performance is so tired that it’s hard to tell whether his yawns are in-character or not). Then there’s the Archbishop of Canterbury (Andrew Havill), who I feel deserves a dishonorable mention simply because of how insufferably annoying he managed to be in the five minutes of screen time he possessed. As for female characters – there are a grand total of three. Lily Rose-Depp is merely okay in the role of Catherine of Valois, who only appears in the film’s last twenty minutes and has one scene of importance; her performance is most notable for the fact that Catherine claims at the outset that she can’t speak English and then proceeds to do so anyway for the rest of the scene.
The film suffers greatly from its muted color palette, and cinematography that is, for the most part, drab and uninspiring. The sole exception is the scene in which Henry V’s forces besiege the castle of Harfleur, using massive trebuchets to launch flaming missiles over the fortress walls: who doesn’t love a good trebuchet? They’re far more interesting than catapults, in my honest opinion. And filming them in action also allows for plenty of interesting camera-work, as The King proves beyond a doubt. Beyond that, the film has nothing going for it in terms of visual splendor – there just isn’t any. The splash of somber green we get from the field of Agincourt is a brief respite from the damp grays and browns of Merry Old England – but even that is quickly transformed into a melee of upturned mud, and the filth of violence.
For history buffs (myself included) the legendary battle of Agincourt is what will keep you watching until the end of the movie: and it’s teased in a big fashion, with a single line of dialogue delivered by Pattinson’s Dauphin in one of the most hilariously exaggerated French accents you’ll hear outside of a Loony Tunes sketch, guaranteed to make your skin crawl in anticipation of the inevitable – “Let us make famous that field out there, this little village of Agincourt that will forever mark the sight of your callow disgrace.” I’m glad I watched The King for that line alone – and thankfully the ensuing battle delivers exactly what the film needs: it’s brutally epic, chaotic, and realistic. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to drown in mud, then The King is the film for you!
An additional incentive to watch the movie (beyond mud-drownings) is the score by Nicholas Britell, which is stirring and appropriately ominous.
All in all, did I have fun watching The King? No, not exactly. I don’t think it tells the story of Henry V better than any history book can – certainly not better than Shakespeare (and I don’t typically praise Shakespeare). But I do think it’s worth a watch if you’re a fan of either Chalamet or Pattinson, or want to check out a “highbrow” sampling of their work. Just don’t expect too much from the movie itself – it may be called The King, but its crown belongs firmly to its stars.
Happy Bastille Day to all my French readers and viewers! I myself am not French nor of French descent (as far as I know, anyway), nor have I ever been to France, and I can’t even speak French.
Why, then, am I dedicating an entire blog post to the French holiday?
Simply because I have recently discovered a gem of a movie, a precious treasure that I have savored, and that must be shared with all of you. This film is The Hundred-Foot Journey, a beautiful film set in the wonderland of picturesque villages, open-air markets and sprawling vineyards and orchards that is rural France. And, parts of it also take place on Bastille Day, so that was all the connection I needed: I had to talk about this film eventually, so this seemed like the most natural place to do so. Allow me to explain why this film is necessary viewing – or, at least, why I feel that it is.
The Hundred-Foot Journey is not a new film: it was released in 2014, had a small but comfortable box-office run, and received mixed reviews. We’ll discuss its problems, but first let’s talk about what makes the film so good, so juicy, so delectable. Let’s discuss why I’m using all these references to taste: the film is a love-letter to the culinary cultures of France and India; two very different cuisines wrapped up together in this bite-sized treat. It follows an Indian family emigrating to France, led by their stubborn patriarch, Papa Kadam (Om Puri), who is trying to set up a restaurant where his extraordinarily talented son Hassan (Manish Dayal) can start a career for himself. But when the family ends up, accidentally, in the small village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, they discover that their presence is unwelcome in the closely-knit community: a rival restaurateur by the name of Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) quickly makes it her business to make the village as hostile to the family as possible, in an attempt to save her own high-end dining establishment from competition. From there, the plot unfolds. There’s romance, drama, and a dash of light-hearted comedy, but it’s all just seasoning on the beautiful three-course meal that is this movie, or should I say – cinematic cookbook.
Technically, the third course is a little more sour than the first two, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s expand on the metaphor for a moment, and revel in the delights of French and Indian cuisine. I recommend that, if you take my suggestion and watch this film ASAP, you should have a delicious meal of your own prepared. It will make you very hungry, I can assure you of that: a film that can make a sea-urchin look like a mouthwatering morsel has done its job well. So well, in fact, that Hassan Kadam is apparently the third-greatest chef in movie history. From his family’s box of heirloom spices to the beautiful cookbooks lent to Hassan by his on-and-off love interest Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), the film is filled with constant reminders of more great meals to come, even when we’re not actually watching those meals being made – which is often. And each meal is different, depending on who’s making it and who’s eating it: we watch Papa and Hassan’s eyes fill with wonder as they are greeted by their first French dinner at Marguerite’s apartment, where the table is laden with some of the most beautiful cheeses you’ve ever seen; we witness the tension in Madame Mallory’s kitchen as she prepares a special meal for the President of France himself; we rejoice in Hassan’s naive first attempt to master the five basic sauces (which, if my sources are correct, are Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Hollandaise and Sauce Tomat). The entire movie is centered around these quiet, intimate moments when the characters eat, with gusto and an almost holy reverence for what they are tasting. It’s the food that makes this movie so enjoyable – the idea that food is so important, so necessary, to people of all walks of life; to culture and community as well. It can bring people to tears as they recall the ghosts of flavors long forgotten, or it can spark passionate romance and thoughtful meditation. Wine, another staple of French cuisine, has a small part in igniting that romance, though it is largely absent from the hundred-foot journey that the Kadams travel.
The journey is both physical and spiritual: a journey from one country to another, from one restaurant to another, from one lifestyle to another. Papa Kadam and Madame Mallory’s rival restaurants stand across the road from each other – a road exactly one-hundred feet in width (a fact that is sometimes hard to believe, considering how small the road looks at times). But the two bitter opponents have journeys of self-discovery to travel as well: obviously, I won’t spoil anything that happens in the movie, but there’s a good deal of change and inner turmoil. The rural village is not very accepting of the Indian newcomers, for one thing, and neither party savors the idea of uniting their distinctly separate culinary styles of art.
From a technical standpoint, the film has its fair share of good and bad, like any film. I mentioned that the first two acts of the film (or courses of the meal, if we’d like to extend the metaphor) are the best: the third act isn’t necessarily bad, but it feels very different from the first two – more mainstream, more distanced, more remote. Things are happening on the screen, but we, the audience, no longer feel quite as intimate with the cast (who are all outstanding). I personally think the last thirty minutes shouldn’t have tried to take the film on a completely different course than the one it had been following, up to that point, almost perfectly. Thankfully, the final scene rescues the ending and gives us one scrumptious aftertaste to hold onto, but there is definitely some difficulty getting to that point.
But the first two acts – lovely, sentimental, and enchanting, the very best appetizer and main course that you could ask for. The film also has an ever-so-slightly old-fashioned quality to it: until the final half-hour, it is softly lit and the dialogue is soft-spoken. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that this little indie dramedy was produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, two giants of the mainstream entertainment industry. Unfortunately, big-name producers don’t always inspire interest from general audiences – James Cameron learned that with Alita: Battle Angel, and Spielberg/Winfrey presumably learned that with The Hundred-Foot Journey, which is sadly neglected, almost completely forgotten, in fact. I don’t even know what inspired me to choose it, almost at random, from a wide selection of films on Netflix – but I am so glad that I did.
Hopefully, this post will inspire you to check it out for yourself, whether today, on this French national holiday, or any day of the year. I urge you to at least try it. I truly believe your life will be a little better for it.