This article contains mild spoilers for “The French Dispatch.”
“The French Dispatch,” director Wes Anderson’s latest film, is, as often described, a love letter to the field of journalism. Specifically, independent publications like The New Yorker. In a way, the film functions as a dollhouse. Many shots of this film are presented as a cross-section of a building that presents the environment with minuscule people standing still in the scene. Anderson uses this structure to portray the medium of journalism: a microcosm of the world that views its people, places, and events all at once.
The film depicts a series of stories from the fictional publication, “The French Dispatch,” through the lens of several vignettes. Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) is a hard-nosed mogul who runs the paper, and under his leadership, a variety of colorful stories come to life in writing. These pieces include a travel section of the fictional French town Ennui told through postcard-like shots and mild slapstick, an arts section about an incarcerated artist (Benicio Del Toro) and a greedy collector (Adrien Brody), and a political section interwoven with the romance between two young revolutionaries (Timothée Chalemet and Lyna Khoudri).
Each of these stories serve as a reminder that there is no such thing as simplicity when it comes to journalism. They highlight how the medium can serve as a vessel for all of the absurd, “too-strange-to-be-true” nuanced tales of reality. The most apparent of which is the food section told by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), which begins as a discussion about a police lieutenant who doubles as a master chef (Stephen Park), but quickly unravels into a kidnapping plot (partially told through a comic strip inspired animated segment). The piece goes on a tangent, starting with copious amounts of context and morphing into a completely new story. Interestingly, this also comments on the journalism industry, as it tends to turn toward more “newsworthy” topics because of the novelty and excitement that accompanies them. So much so that the initial purpose of the story may be forgotten.
Meanwhile, the dialogue moves at a million miles per hour, rich with language that audiences may have difficulty understanding. At times, it is a bit hard to keep track of the narrative because of the dense script. While this may be a tough task for viewers to endure, it contributes to Anderson’s vision of journalism. The narrators (the journalists at “The French Dispatch”) are essentially reading a printed story word-for-word, and the eloquent, wordy accounts are precisely how journalists tend to write on paper.
If this wasn’t hard enough, Anderson has a large portion of dialogue in French and characters hold conversations at a rapid pace without translation. Here, Anderson comments on the international, worldwide aspect of the field. It can be used to transcend national boundaries, connecting people from one end of the world to the other. Though the dialogue and use of language may detract from the viewing experience for some, it is a testament to Anderson’s deep understanding as well as his passionate love for the cross-cultural elements of the subject matter.
Anderson does not shy away from poking fun at how journalistic norms have shaped social conversations, serving as a gentle critique of the field. “Journalistic neutrality, if it exists” (to quote Frances McDormand’s Lucinda Krementz), is a prevalent question today, as the seemingly “objective” language used in discussion is used to paint over a visceral reality. The political segment told by Krementz shows a journalist caught seemingly in war between the government and rebelling schoolchildren. She finds herself struggling between the decision to remain an impartial bystander or to intervene, despite an oath to neutrality. However, in maintaining her position, she finds herself lonely and isolated, and it is through foregoing her stance that she finds that genuine human connection. Even though a mere quip, Anderson examines the complexities of journalistic integrity.
From a visual standpoint, the use of color in this film is a striking, yet effective decision. Anderson is known for more bright, pastel-like colors in many of his works, but he makes the surprising choice of presenting a majority of this film in black and white. Though it is a popular trend today in film in utilizing this coloring choice (i.e. “The Lighthouse,” and even black and white versions of films like “Parasite” and “Zack Snyder’s Justice League”), there is something incredibly compelling when used here. It could simply be used to show a previous point in time in the decades prior, but somehow the black and white aesthetic is reflective of black ink on a newspaper and the grey as it smears across the paper and one’s fingers when reading it.
All of this is set to a gentle score by Alexandre Desplat, a frequent collaborator of Anderson, (“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and “Isle of Dogs”) that sounds simple, yet captures the style and tone of each vignette in this film. It perfectly captures the blend of the French elegance and grounded Americana that embodies “The French Dispatch.” The most notable of which is the track titled “Obituary.” Despite its title, it lacks the sorrowful expectations of one’s death. Rather, it utilizes a harpsichord and light brass intercut with a triumphant horn countermelody. It plays a joyful funeral march, celebrating the end of Howitzer’s life, and subsequently the end of “The French Dispatch” newspaper.
Even so, the film ends with a crowded room of reporters talking over one another in discussing what to write for Howitzer’s obituary. While this newspaper has reached its end, the stories that live on the pages never die. As these words are immortalized, they allow people to continue to experience and discover the first draft of human history. It’s a bittersweet end, but as Howitzer says, “don’t cry in my office.”
“The French Dispatch” is available in theaters starting October 22, 2021.