Clinton Olsasky: ‘The French Dispatch’ & ‘Spencer’

The Des Moines Double Feature is back! In this semi-weekly series, we at Des Moines Film will spotlight two movies that prompt critical discussion. In some cases, these may be two new releases currently playing in Des Moines-area theaters. Other times, we may choose to compare a new release with a classic film or even spotlight two classics. 


This week, we take a look at two new award season contenders from two celebrated filmmakers: “The French Dispatch” by Wes Anderson and “Spencer” by Pablo Larraín. Let’s just call this Des Moines Double Feature “The Spence Dispatch.”



“The French Dispatch”


No one makes a movie quite like Wes Anderson.


The director’s distinctive visuals are so immediately recognizable, his storytelling style so unique, that it could be argued that Anderson’s movies exist within their own genre.


Now, a full quarter-century and 10 feature films into his career, Anderson has pushed his visual and narrative aesthetics to their giddy extremes in “The French Dispatch,” a multilayered “love letter to journalists,” as Anderson himself put it.


The film opens on the death of Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Anderson favorite Bill Murray), editor of the fictional Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun and its French foreign bureau, appropriately named The French Dispatch. According to Howitzer’s dying wish, the paper is to cease publication upon its editor’s death, but not before one final issue is published.


What follows is a rip-roaring retelling of the stories that comprise the final issue of the titular newspaper, including the stories behind the stories themselves. The majority of the runtime is devoted to the issue’s three “feature” stories, and Anderson renders each of these with his signature blend of stylized visuals and eccentric characters on full display.


Anderson is at his most visually playful — and experimental — in “The French Dispatch,” shifting between black-and-white and color cinematography, toying with aspect ratios and blocking elaborate real-time “freeze frames,” not to mention employing his trademark geometric compositions and flat tracking shots. Heck, multiple sequences in the film are even animated in the style of a comic strip!


In short, Anderson stuffs each frame of “The French Dispatch” with so much detail that you may feel the need to see it again just to soak it all in.


And yet, whether tracing a prisoner’s unlikely transformation from dangerous criminal into modern art celebrity or piecing together a profile of police cuisine that finds a chef adrift in a foreign land, Anderson still manages to tap into a strong emotional core beneath all his heightened aesthetics. 


In other words, he never loses sight of the human element at the heart of his stories. Just like any good journalist.





On its surface, “Spencer,” the new drama about Princess Diana’s anguished private and public life, could easily be miscategorized as a standard-issue biopic about a misunderstood historical figure.


But for those familiar with the work of director Pablo Larraín (perhaps best known for 2016’s intensely introspective “Jackie”), it should come as no surprise that “Spencer” bucks most every convention in the biopic genre.


While other biopics often attempt to squeeze in every single significant event from the life of its subject, rendering itself into a cinematic Wikipedia page summary, Larraín does quite the opposite.


As in “Jackie,” Larraín chooses to only cover a few fateful days in the life of the tormented princess — specifically, the events that led to Diana’s decision to end her troubled marriage to Prince Charles. The result is an acutely focused and immensely moving portrait of a woman in trouble — a woman burdened with the weight of the world’s penetrating and unforgiving gaze.


Kristen Stewart brings this burden to bear in her transformative turn as the titular princess (the movie’s title “Spencer” is named after Diana’s pre-royal surname). Simply put, Stewart embodies Diana: her vocal inflections, her expressive gestures, even her gait start to uncannily mirror the real-life woman. 


Stewart’s performance proves to be much more than physical imitation, however; hers is also one of psychological immersion that dives deep into the emotional highs and lows of Diana’s teeming inner life.


In “Spencer,” that inner life is often characterized by feelings of paranoia and entrapment. In one telling scene, this entrapment is manifested in a close-up of a label on Diana’s royal wardrobe. The label? P.O.W. — an acronym that literally refers to her status as the Princess of Wales but that also slyly implies her state of mind as a “prisoner of war.” At war with herself and the suffocating demands of public duty, Diana’s slipping grip on her own agency — and, indeed, her reality — is visualized in a series of bravura tracking shots and swirling handheld close-ups, all punctuated by a paranoid and percussive score by Jonny Greenwood.


Of course, it’s impossible for anyone to truly know what Diana was thinking and feeling in this most tumultuous time in her life, and Larraín admits as much in an epigram embossed on the film’s opening frames, which, in part, reads: a “fable based on a true tragedy.”


The tragedy, most obviously, refers to Diana’s untimely death at only 36 years old, about six years after the events depicted in Larraín’s film. But as “Spencer” reveals to us, another, less obvious tragedy had already befallen the troubled princess: the loss of one’s self and, indeed, one’s own identity.


— Clinton Olsasky


“The French Dispatch” and “Spencer” are now playing in Des Moines-area theaters.