Vincent van Gogh’s painting Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear sold for $71.5 million at a November 1998 Christie’s auction. The artist created it after dropping a package off at a brothel for a woman named Rachel, telling her to “guard this object with your life.” That was in December 1888. Van Gogh was an unknown artist at the time. Adrien Brody plays a similar art curator to those at Christie’s in Wes Anderson’s anthology film, The French Dispatch. The first vignette in the three-story film exhibits how commerce in the art world is a cut-throat business, especially when it’s personal.
The French Dispatch is Anderson’s homage to The New Yorker during the magazine’s heyday under founder/editor Harold Ross, fictionalized in the film as Arthur Howitzer, Jr., portrayed eccentrically by Bill Murray. With writers like James Thurber, A.J. Liebling, James Baldwin, and Rosamond Bernier, it was idiosyncratic and utterly original. In the film, the fictional French Dispatch magazine started in Liberty, Kansas and is now published in the sardonically-named fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, France. You might think nothing happens there, and when it does, no one cares. But the opening sequence of The French Dispatch proves any local can be worthy of mention in The New Yorker’s “The Talk of the Town” column.
The first vignette, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” is presented as an art lecture by French Dispatch magazine staff writer J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton). In it, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro, with Tony Revolori as the younger character in flashbacks) is a genius artist serving a life sentence for a double homicide. He beheaded two bartenders in a psychotic rage, the first “by accident” and the second in self-defense.
Confined to the psychiatric ward, and often fastened in a straitjacket, in Ennui Prison, Rosenthaler had put down his brushes when incarcerated, and only asked for art supplies after falling in love with the guard Simone (Léa Seydoux). She is his muse, standing in impossible postures for hours while he captures her innermost beauty. Rosenthaler could paint her as she stands, perfectly rendered on a canvas as recognizable as a traditional still life, or a sparrow hastily scrawled with a burnt matchbook to prove his gifts. But his vision is interpretive, and the rendition is abstract. There is a woman to be seen there in the painting, but she is as elusive as the smile on the Mona Lisa.
Rosenthaler is reluctant to sell the painting, Simone Naked, Cell Block J Hobby Room, when Julian Cadazio (Brody’s dealer who’s briefly incarcerated for the white-collar crime of sales tax evasion) sweetly bribes his way into the Maximum Security for the Mentally Deranged unit.
“All artists sell all their work, it’s what makes you an artist,” the art dealer explains to the paint-splattered inmate. The two fellow convicts then proceed to imprison each other. Cadazio makes Rosenthaler one of the world’s premiere visionaries in the art world, based on “one small scribbly overrated picture.” The painter with a 50-year sentence is confined to deadlines for the first time in his life but manages to keep the art dealer hostage with promises of perfection. After all, Rosenthaler is a man whose secondary motivation is the terror of the Splatter Brigade, other jailed artists who taunt each other to greatness with threats of grievous harm.
Anderson, who also made Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, and Moonrise Kingdom, is an obsessive. He fills in all the loose doodles of his subject, compulsively objectifying Rosenthaler as a truly tortured artist. Seydoux conjures her inner Morticia Addams by reminding Moses that torture is Simone’s job. She is an electrifying muse and knows how to jump start his cables.
Anderson is also making comments on the construction of an artist. Cadazio wants a biography as a patron, which is as much collateral as the paint, egg yolks, and prison soap brushed over tarp. Rosenthaler becomes an art world sensation for his mental illness and violence as much as he does for his impressionistic visions. Cadazio berates him and promotes him as a homicidal maniac, and when the painter completes his masterpiece collection, the madness is revealed as the true genius. The final paintings are done as frescos, painted on the concrete walls deep in the prison interior. They are there to stay, a testament to the artist, the life and its sentence, and the guard who gives him a reason to serve his time. The artist has hijacked his own work, putting the Cadazio family on the verge of ruin in a ransom of fulfilled promises.
Rosenthaler delivers his rogue gallery collection, on time, and it is so exquisite, it is deemed worth the price of excavation, removal, and relocation. But the artist is also a criminally insane wannabe-repeat offender, he’s even tried to sexually assault the art historian J.K.L. Berensen, as she tells her audience. His final act of violence earns him his freedom, but the inspiration for it is much deeper.
Van Gogh offered a piece of himself for an unattainable love, in what has been classified as a moment of madness. Simone is going to leave her post as the guard at the Ennui prison on the day after the illicit gallery showing is conducted. The paintings are all of Simone, and Rosenthaler immortalized her in a way which would also keep him close to her. The framing is essential to the art. The permanence is the palette. It is a deeply personal work.
Simone commandeers the artist’s talent for a long-term plan. She ultimately saves Rosenthaler even as she alternately denies and rewards him. Anderson saves the parallel until the sequence’s end, but it reveals the greed which shifts the whims of art culture. When Cadazio shows his family his prison discovery, he tells them to get rid of the flowers and fruit bowls, seascapes and landscapes, they are relics of a dead era.
The French Dispatch is told as the story of the magazine’s final issue, which features the founding editor’s obituary. The magazine was born with him and dies with him in the film. “The Concrete Masterpiece” sets this tone in stone. When the walls are separated, crated and shipped to Liberty, Kansas for an exclusive art installation, it is an allegory to the afterlife of the publication. Whether the price tag is 200,000 francs or 70 cigarettes, it is hard to part with the most personal of art. It is what makes it most valuable. Against all odds, Rosenthaler succeeds in setting the true price.
The French Dispatch is available to stream on HBO Max.