Journalists work backstage – we love to talk about other people in the spotlight, but no one ever talks about us. But in Wes Anderson’s fantastical tale about The French Dispatch, based in the small French town Ennui-sur-Blasé (literally boredom on blasé), the tables have turned. The story is about editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) and his peculiar group of journalists: Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright).
The French Dispatch is based on The New Yorker, a weekly American magazine that Wes Anderson is reportedly a huge fan of. The film is an ode to the earlier editions of The New Yorker that cultivated big names such as James Baldwin, A.J. Liebling, or Shirley Jackson. It evokes nostalgia for a time when without the internet, we flicked through paper magazines and got a laugh out of them. The script, written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzmann is delightful and witty, providing good satirical comedy we used to see before online journalism took over and everything became dependent on the number of views, and how swiftly the news could be relayed.
As a Wes Anderson fan, I find that this film is his best to date and a celebration of his aesthetic and unique views of the world. No other living director’s style is as visibly recognisable as that of Anderson; the characteristic split screens, chapter pages, and, of course, aspect ratio of either 1.37:1 or 2.39:1. But what stood out most in this film compared to his others, was the constant shift in colour.
Here, Wes Anderson uses colour as a symbol to represent time: colour shows perennial things, people, and memories while black and white is for ephemerality. For instance, in the feature “The Concrete Masterpiece”, told by J.K.L. Berensen, Moses Rosenthaler’s paintings are the only times when the scene switches to colour. This is significant as we, the audience, are in the period following Rosenthaler’s death – although he is gone, his work is not, his legacy remains. On the contrary, in “Revisions to a Manifesto” written by Lucinda Krementz, the young student revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) is often depicted in black and white scenes, because humans are ephemeral, our time is limited, particularly in Zeffirelli’s case, as he ends up dying at a young age.
Although witty, the film is not just about the humour back in the good old days. The three “long fact” (as The New Yorker liked to call them) pieces in the film make no false promises to keep journalistic integrity, and the stories aren’t actually about facts. In “Revisions to a Manifesto”, there is a satirical discussion about this, and there is a moment when Krementz realises that it’s impossible to keep journalistic integrity. The journalists get attached to their subject matter and they become a part of their own stories, the very words they put on the paper. Journalism is also about (with good luck) finding “what eluded us in the places we once called home,” as the Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park) says at the end of the film. Perhaps that’s what good journalism is; interesting writing that satisfies our curious minds.
Wes Anderson once said in an interview that his new film The French Dispatch was not “easy to explain”. It really isn’t. You might have to watch this at least twice in cinemas to really get the full gist. Is this bad journalism, as we can’t get the news in one go? Maybe. Or maybe every scoop has a lot of characters with complicated relationships that we never get to read about these days.
Image: Ron Cogwell via Flickr