The French Dispatch (2021), A Love-Letter to Journalism

One common recurrence you see on Twitter is people being shocked to learn that Wes Anderson was born and raised in Houston, Texas. This, no doubt, is because of the very European aesthetic that he conjures in his films, while this has certainly become more pronounced with his more recent films like The Grand Budapest Hotel, the inklings of this can be seen throughout his career (although his debut film Bottle Rocket evokes a strong rural Texan vibe). And while the aforementioned Grand Budapest Hotel, being set unsurprisingly in Budapest, lends itself to this ideal, Anderson takes it further in The French Dispatch which is easily his most European, and most Wes Andersony, to date.

Taking place in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, which humorously translates to Bordeom-on-Blasé, the focus of the film is the eponymous French Dispatch, a supplement to the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun about the comings-and-goings of the town from the perspective of different ex-patriate writings. Anderson has been clear about the influence of The New Yorker on the film, but it’s heart-warming appreciation of the written word goes further to display a love of journalism as a whole. Within the film there are three main stories; ‘The Concrete Masterpiece’, ‘Revisions to a Manifesto’, and ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner’, and a couple other shorter skits that bookend the film. 

This segmented approach is novel for Anderson’s work, and for many could be seen as limiting as, I do admit, it means that despite an impressive collective cast not all the actors get time to flesh out their characters. But I don’t think this adversely affects the film, instead offering an incomplete tapestry of colourful characters leaving their lingering impression on the tales in the same way a passing sentence might do in an article. Everything and everyone has a place in the story and the journalistic approach lends itself to leaving characters as momentary glimpses in the wider narrative of each story. Meanwhile the leading characters, who are given time to shine, all feel deeply explored and characterised not necessarily through the story itself but through how they’re told. With each story being “written” by a different journalist, all of whom are given a glimpse into their psyche by an early sequence where their offices are shown, the way in which the events are described, and narrated, all open a window into the “author” allowing characters who aren’t the focus of each tale to feel laid out before the audience to project onto; much like how many famous journalists (a lot of whom the film is dedicated to) became such recognisable names.

One of the most striking features, especially for a director so known for his use of colour and aesthetic, is the choice to film a large majority of the film in black-and-white. While the symmetrical and carefully blocked imagery of Anderson’s filmography still evoke the craftsmanship that he has honed for years now, the use of black-and-white further enhances these stylistic choices, creating scenes of cramped, but not claustrophobic, livelihood and emotion. But for me the choice goes deeper than this, I believe the stories, as it is the stories themselves rather than the framing narratives that lack colour, evoke the feeling of print journalism itself. Words, for the most part, are always black and white, with the descriptions and events being colourised in our minds as we read them, the image of newsprint is always that of black ink impressed on white newspaper and thus by replicating these tales in the same contrasting colour-scheme Anderson is bringing the beauty of the written word to life on the screen. But of course there are times when these tales are punctuated by beautiful full-colour shots, some of the most memorable and awe-inspiring moments of the film are when we’re treated to a splash of colour in these tales (the neon lights flashing across Timothee Chalamet & Lyna Khoudri character’s riding a motorcycle away from the protest being one of the best, and my personal favourite, examples of this). These moments are there not only to display the incredible cinematography of long-time Anderson collaborator Robert Yeoman, but also Wes Anderson’s creative spirit. If these were real stories printed in a real journal they would be the moments that flash across your imagination in full-colour as the words take on a life of their own, and Anderson has an uncanny ability to throw these in at just the right moment to evoke that inalienable feeling.

In terms of the cast, I’ve briefly mentioned that not all of the actors get ample opportunity to show their talents, Saorise Ronan only gets a fleeting moment of screen-time for example (although in those few moments she does personify her character in a way that regardless makes her memorable), but the core cast does such a tremendous job that it’s hard to know where and who to begin praising. Personally, the stand-out for me has to be Jeffrey Wright, who plays the journalist responsible for the final story of the film. Wright has a voice that can, and does, carry so much power and the breaks in his tale where we see him being interviewed, and particularly the moment where he is forced to answer the question of “why” he chooses to write, is one of the most powerful moments of cinema I’ve seen this year. It’s tender, moving and thought-provoking in all the right ways and Wright does a tremendous job at capturing those emotions wonderfully. But similarly Frances McDormand, in traditional McDormand fashion, gives a portrayal so idiosyncratic and yet worldly & far-reaching that it reminds you of just how tremendous an actress she is. Lea Seydoux & Benicio Del Toro both give stunning subdued performances, that work tremendously when played off of each other, and Tilda Swinton’s character is so out-there that it’s both hilarious and charming. In a surprisingly small role, Bill Murray provides the heart of the film as the firm but loving editor of the paper, and even in his brief appearances ties the thematic heart of the film together. 

While I’ve already seen reviews saying this is Wes Anderson doing all style no substance, I’d argue that this is the best example of Anderson tying his in-your-face aesthetic with a deep thematic appreciation for Journalism. Going deeper each story carries its own message about the artform of writing, the final story being the most tender about the loneliness that it can bring but the warmth and comfort that even something as minute as reviewing food can bring to wandering souls lost in the world without a place. But for the characters, much like for the readers of the real-life magazines that Anderson took influence from, there is always a place for such souls to come together and that’s in the black and white words that adorn the pages of papers, journals and magazines across the globe. For Anderson, born and raised in Houston, Texas, his exposure to the culture of the outside world came through the writings of The New Yorker and with The French Dispatch he is able to give that love, that sense of wonder, that hunger for adventure back to those who inspired him and to those who take inspiration from him.

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