At the Movies: Two Major Directors’ Latest:

Wes Anderson Wallows in Whimsy; Ridley Scott Crafts a “Woke” Epic

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“The French Dispatch”
From director Wes Anderson comes his 10th feature, “The French Dispatch,” which he has described as “a love letter to journalists set at an outpost of an American newspaper in the fictional 20th-century French city of Ennui-sur-Blase.” The film is inspired by Anderson’s love of The New Yorker with characters and events based on real-life equivalents from the magazine. It is also a “portmanteau” film, an anthology of three distinct stories that appeared in the Dispatch, written by its idiosyncratic expatriate staff. (Rated R, the film runs 103 minutes.)

Bill Murray, a long-time favorite of Anderson’s (he has appeared in all of the director’s films), plays the Dispatch’s editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr., a soft-spoken curmudgeon, whose eclectic staff includes travel writer Herbert Sazerac (Owen Wilson), copyeditor Alumna (Elizabeth Moss) and magazine cartoonist Hermes Jones (Jason Schwartzman).

The first of the three stories (“The Concrete Masterpiece”) centers on Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), a fervent art dealer interested in the work of a violent prison inmate, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro) housed in the section for the criminally insane. This piece is based on a New Yorker series covering the real-life art dealer Lord Duveen and is narrated by Dispatch writer J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton). French star Lea Seydoux plays Rosenthaler’s prison guard, Simone, who serves as his muse, posing for him nude, which he envisions as an abstract impressionistic jumble, an image that captures Cadazio. The convict follows up with an expansive series of similar frescos.

The second tale takes off from the May 1968 student occupation protests and was inspired by New Yorker articles originally written by Mavis Gallant. Called “Revisions to a Manifesto” in the film, it is written by staffer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), a no-nonsense journalist profiling student revolutionaries, who include chess-playing Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet) and his obdurate girlfriend Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). Zeffirelli is the poetic voice of the “revolution,” while his Juliette is the enforcer.

The third article, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” is written by Roebuck Wright (Jeffery Wright), a food journalist at the Dispatch. At a dinner with the police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric), Wright and others learn that his son Gigi has been kidnapped, and Lt. Nescaffier (a noted chef as well as a police officer) is on the case. Edward Norton (a chauffeur) and Saorise Ronan (a showgirl) are part of the kidnapping gang who are chased by the police and eventually succumb in a shootout.

Let it be known that “French Dispatch” could be none other than a Wes Anderson film. All the elements of his style are there. The highly stylized jewel box scenes, the deadpan dialogue, the occasional animation, the ever-present whimsy and preciousness ‒ all on full display for this mellow comedy (the film is especially reminiscent of “Grand Hotel Budapest”). However, for this observer, they miss the mark. They seem like Wes gone amok.

The best of the tales is “Masterpiece,” principally because the setup is distinctive and unexpected, and the deadpan delivery works best (del Toro and Brody seem comfortable in their stilted dialogue). It is the least cloying of the three, with a semi-clever take on contemporary art. The “Manifesto” sequence is a narrative mess, the objective journalist ill-contrasting with half-committed, willful youth aching for a vague revolution. It aims to mock clueless insurgents (Chalamet seems particularly ill-cast), which renders little but confusion. The “Dining Room” is a complete farrago, with too many oddball characters doing too many weird things, all ending in a mindless and confusing police chase.

If these assessments seem harsh, consider them disappointing outcomes from a director this reviewer has often enjoyed. Here he has combined the ingredients of his now familiar schtick but left them too long on the stove.

Matt Damon (left) as Jean de Carrouges and Adam Driver as Jacques Le Gris in “The Last Duel.” Photo: Patrick Redmond. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved

“The Last Duel”
With “The Last Duel,” Ridley Scott steps back into history, as he so memorably did with “Gladiator” from 2000. His focus is again on an historic tale of betrayal and vengeance, but this time set against the brutality of medieval France in 14th-century Normandy during the reign of Charles VI, rather than ancient Rome. (Rated R for mediaeval violence and nudity, the film runs 2 hours and 32 minutes.)

“The Last Duel” begins and ends with France’s last sanctioned duel in 1386 between Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), two long-time friends and warrior-knights-of-the-king turned bitter rivals.

Carrouges is a ferocious knight, long engaged in fighting the rival English, and also a stolid, unlettered man with a gift for rampage but none for wit or deceit. Le Gris is his opposite, a poor but clever man who has educated himself in numbers and letters and adopted libertine ways, thereby ingratiating himself to a high prince of the domain, Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck), a right hand of the King. It is Jean, however, who wins the heart of the most desirable Marguerite (Jodie Comer).

However, Le Gris, lusty that he is, also has eyes for Marguerite and, with her husband away on a Scottish campaign, breaks into Carrouges’ castle and viciously assaults her. When she becomes pregnant, suspicion falls on Jacques as the father. He denies a rape charge, but Marguerite refuses to stay silent and forcefully accuses him as her attacker, an act of bravery and defiance that puts her life in jeopardy. A trial by combat is then authorized by Charles (Alex Lawther), a grueling duel to the death, shown in a grim sequence that opens and closes the picture (Scott displayed a parallel version of this brutal culminating fight in “Gladiator”).

At more than two and one-half hours, “Duel” does grind on, perhaps because Scott wallows in period detail: pervasive mud, grim stone and endless candlelight, all bathed in a gray-blue cast and a clattering soundtrack. It may make for a convincing 1386, but it doesn’t always keep the action moving. The film can’t help being repetitive either, since the story is set in three chapters, the first two covering similar events, first from Jean’s perspective, then Jacques’ and lastly Marguerite’s.

The three-way screenplay ‒ by Nicole Holofcener (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” “Enough Said”), Affleck and Damon ‒ may explain why the movie is part macho mania (from Affleck and Damon?) and part a sort of primitive #MeToo movement in Old France (crafted likely by Holofcener). The latter’s all-too-contemporary vessel is the young Comer, here comely for sure but also principled and a staunch seeker of the truth, unlike the tired and cynical women around her.

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.