Rogue Pun

The film of 2021? Why UK comics love The French Dispatch, and the worlds of Wes Anderson

Matthew Highton at the French Dispatch exhibition. Matthew Highton

Saunter along swanky London thoroughfare The Strand back in early November and you'd eventually come across a French café that you couldn't actually get into. Or not through its outside doors, anyway. This was, it turned out, the elaborate grand finale of an exhibition celebrating The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson's latest - some say, greatest - film.

Gorgeous props, costumes, miniatures, artworks, Bill Murray's whole editor's office, and that evocative café; Wes Anderson's 10th film was the second to enjoy the accompanying-exhibition treatment (unless we missed a whole Life Aquatic underwater experience, maybe), which says much for the visual detail. You couldn't do that with most indie flicks.

French Dispatch exhibition cafe. Copyright: Si Hawkins

The French Dispatch - starring Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalamet, Benicio Del Toro, et al - is another feast for the discerning eye, and arguably his most narratively complex film. It features three separate stories all linked by the eponymous newspaper, an ambitious amuse bouche-fest that might well have seen off some casual Wes watchers, and critics. But for the dedicated, it was absolute catnip.

"It's the most Wes Anderson he's ever been," says Matthew Highton, the Saddleworth-spawned stand-up and online viral-video wizard. Highton, it transpires, actually has a direct link to the film, in particular the recent digital/DVD release (but we'll keep coquettishly schtum about what that link is). He revelled in that multi-story structure.

Matthew Highton at the French Dispatch exhibition. Matthew Highton

"If it's done well, I find it really beautiful," says the filmmaker/comic. "A lot of people hate it because they just want something to sink their teeth into, instead of these little vignettes, and went 'it didn't really have a story!' and stuff. But I loved that."

The Hightons even let Wes dominate the biggest day of their lives. "We had a Wes Anderson-themed wedding. All the tables were named after films, and I'd made little artworks for them. [Fellow comic] Ben Target married us, dressed like Ed Norton in Moonrise Kingdom, as a scout. Everything was sort of Wes Anderson colours, and my wife's uncle is amazing, he made us the cabinet behind the concierge in Grand Budapest Hotel, everyone had their own key as a keepsake."

Highton is one of three Wes-loving comics we've canvassed, from across the UK (actually just a happy accident, if you're wondering what happened to Wales). Scotland's Eleanor Morton - whose characterful vignettes have also won a faithful following - loves the distinctive visual style, which has influenced so many films, shows and ads, over the last two decades.

"He creates beautiful worlds," she says. "I think of it as a bit like picture books for grownups. There's a sort of mid-century modern but also timeless style to his aesthetic which I think taps into nostalgia for a lot of viewers, and reminds them of safe, pastel-coloured spaces, like their grandmother's living room. He creates really lovely colour palettes and his films always look like sweet-shop windows."

Which are the best windows. Interestingly, both Morton and Highton have worked for legendary British comic The Beano in recent years, so know their onions when it comes to grown-up picture books.

Paul Currie

The Belfast-based clown king Paul Currie once worked for Jim Henson, meanwhile, and was also wowed by that Strand exhibition, particularly the miniatures. Anderson has a couple of magical stop-motion movies to his name - Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle Of Dogs - but his live action flicks are full of fabulous old-school eye-fooling trickery too.

Currie reckons The French Dispatch is his best film yet, "because it's like all his influences have converged and grown into this one untouchable masterpiece," he says - those influences ranging from French new wave to classic British comedy. "The speed and amount of stories to keep up with is so refreshing, a lot of Python-esque skits, it's like Godard meets Tati but for the Tik Tok generation."

While the film has been described as a 'love letter to journalists,' some film critics certainly weren't enamoured. Currie has a theory. "He's satirised critics perfectly, they recognise themselves and they don't like what they see. For me, hands down it's a fucking masterpiece, it's like a new level of cinema. He's used every palette at his disposal and he's used it ALL perfectly. Animation, mime, clowning, model-making, black and white, poetry, fine art, the list goes on... it's just utterly sublime on so many levels."

French Dispatch exhibition miniature. Copyright: Si Hawkins

So, have our acts been influenced by Anderson's films, in their own comedy? Matt Highton feels obliged to mention another visual visionary first; his aforementioned collaborator - and one-time registrar - Ben Target.

"I always think Ben's got a Wes Anderson quality," he says, "quite gentle, and I think of Ben's work in terms of colours. I can always picture the colour of his show. I think I do that with Wes Anderson films, too.

"Whereas I take more narrative, cadence from it, I don't take as much visuals, even though I might want to put that feeling in through music or something. I focus more on structure. Like my early shows, they all had a genre in the back of my head: 'well, this is my sci-fi.' 'This is my horror.' And there's a few shows where I was like, 'this is gonna be my Wes Anderson show.'"

Eleanor Morton. Copyright: Matt Stronge

There is a distinctive Anderson aesthetic - scenes set up like a painting, characters staring straight down the lens, lots of yellow and greeny-blue - and Eleanor Morton's latest photoshoot is certainly "fairly Wes-ish," as she puts it. Have his visual worlds affected her work generally? "I don't know how much that's influenced me other than liking pretty things, but I have to say I do love deadpan, and I can't think of another filmmaker who uses it so frequently and successfully."

And Currie? "I strive to make my solo comedy like a live one-man Wes Anderson stand-up show."

Now there's a thought.


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