BFI London Film Festival presents The French Dispatch; in cinemas on 22nd October.
Sunday 10th October 2021
Reporter – Neil Baker
It is an unusually warm October day as I arrive on the Southbank in London. Disembarking my Thameslink train as it arrives at Blackfriars station, the smell of the Southbank immediately hits me. It’s a strange and unique smell that I have never quite been able to explain; tidal water mixed with a range of perfumes, coffee and roasted nuts. But, I digress; as I walk down the steps of Blackfriars station, I am immediately struck by a feeling of regret, “why did I wear my warm Harris Tweed jacket” I whisper to myself as I suddenly feel the heat of the sun bouncing off the Thames. I quickly sweep these thoughts away; after all, it’s too late now, and my priority is a large cappuccino before the UK premiere of the long-awaited The French Dispatch at The Royal Festival Hall.
Suddenly as I near Cafe Nero, a brief moment of panic strikes, “where is my face mask?” “Did I leave it on the train?” This strange modern worry is quickly put to rest as I reach into the inside pocket of my jacket, where I feel the soft edge of the mask lying in slumber. As I enter Cafe Nero, my face mask now on, a warm and welcoming scent of coffee and cake washes over me as I order my regular large Cappuccino without the chocolate sprinkles (let’s be honest, they add nothing to the drink, do they?).
Benicio del Toro in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
It’s 5.00 pm when I arrive at The Royal Festival Hall; here I stand for a while trying to remember which side of the building is allocated to green tickets and which is for blue. As I finally choose my entrance, I am immediately hit by the feeling of once again arriving too early. To be fair, It’s a habit of mine that I have never been able to break. One that always finds me loitering for at least thirty minutes before the main event. But, I quickly find a seat and await the opening of the auditorium doors, spending my time people watching as the crowds slowly build.
At 5.30 pm, the doors swing open, and after a last-minute decision to go for a safety wee, I enter the sprawling hall. My seat is D27, the end of the row. This is wonderful in terms of legroom (a niggling problem in the Festival Hall for anyone over 6ft), but it is also a massive inconvenience in terms of being the first in the row to arrive. And as I sit, I prepare myself for the constant role of standing back up again to let others sit down.
Tilda Swinton in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
By 5.45 pm, the hall is filling up fast; however, the two people sitting next to me seem oblivious to the fact that I am here; there isn’t even a polite “hello” as they sit down. I find this immediately annoying; however, behind me, just over my shoulder, a group of young people chatter away. One is complaining they haven’t eaten, while the other tucks into a large baguette. By 5.50 pm, the hunger of this poor student has become too much to bear as they rush outside in the hope of a sandwich. I can’t help but wonder at this point whether they will make it back in time for the film. But as the clock nears six, the young man bounds back in, a baguette and beer in hand, a warm smile covering his face.
As the presentation begins, a trendy and cool looking Tricia Tuttle introduces Jarvis Cocker and his new (or is that old?) song and music video. As the music video plays, I can’t help but notice Tricia gently swaying to the song; it’s obvious she likes it. We are then treated to a small group of the cast joining the stage alongside Jarvis and Tricia. This mini-ensemble includes Alex Lawther and Tony Revolori; however, no sooner have they arrived than they are ushered off, with not a single word spoken. I can’t help but find this slightly strange and rude; in fact, it gnarls at me just as much as the lack of hello from the people next to me.
Bill Murray and Pablo Pauly in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Meanwhile, the young student behind me appears less than impressed with his baguette, commenting that the “bread to filling ratio was disappointing.” This makes me sad when I consider his broad smile of achievement just moments before.
As the movie begins, I find myself reminded of just how much I love Wes Anderson, the bright cinematography, luscious score and dry wit wrapping its arms around me like a comforting blanket. I suddenly feel at one with the film, the faint noises of the audience disappearing as I enter Anderson’s highly imaginative world. Here, we meet Kansas-born Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray) just moments before his untimely death. Howitzer is the editor-in-chief of an American magazine run from a French city called Ennui-Sur-Blasé. Its role is to bring French stories to an American audience through a diverse, handpicked group of journalists.
On Howitzers death, his loyal team put together a final edition, one that highlights just how unique The French Dispatch was. Here we are treated to four articles by four of the papers best-known journalists played by Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Jeffrey Wright.
As I sip on a bottle of water that now feels tepid, I quickly glance around the auditorium. It’s immediately apparent at this point that The French Dispatch is garnering differing levels of enjoyment from the crowd, with some already wriggling in their seats. At this point, it’s also clear to me that younger audience members seem less engaged. For a brief moment, I wonder why this might be? Until I then realised that the journalism represented on screen is now rare in a world of quick soundbites, social media and easy read online articles. This thought continues to linger as my attention moves back to the story.
READ MORE: DUNE
By now, we are mid-way through the film, and the student behind me has suddenly realised that the pint of beer he brought may not have been the best option as he rushes to the toilet. But, not even the desperate need for a wee could tear me away from the humour, beauty and charm of the stories on screen, each one an ode to journalism and a love letter to magazines ranging from The New Yorker to The New Republic and The Atlantic. Every scene, exquisite in its design, every performance wrapped in a blanket of love.
As the film draws to an end, I find myself longing for more. A brief urge to head to a newsstand and grab a copy of the New Yorker consumes me until I remember that our modern journalistic world now exists primarily online. The smell of a freshly printed magazine, a slowly disappearing memory. As I leave the auditorium, this thought remains with me, a feeling that we may have lost something in the move to digital media. But, that thought quickly evaporates as my desire for a cappuccino rises to the surface. And as I walk back to Cafe Nero, my afternoon and evening having come full circle, my love for Wes Anderson has only further increased.