since its release in 2021 of last year, i’ve been wanting to watch the french dispatch. among the things that piqued my interest and held it (albeit at the back of my mind) for a good portion of at least half a year, it was the fact that it was yet another wes anderson creation. and wes anderson, i am always assured, is a director with a creative and artistic direction different from any of his modern contemporaries. he isn't a blockbuster guarantee in the same way that steven spielberg or j j abrams is, but there is a reason that his films stand out. some may say that it is the pastel colour palette that firmly makes its presence known amidst a cacophany of saturated orange explosions and the red of blood. that shows in "The French Dispatch". others may say perhaps it is the whimsical nature of his films, how the stories that he directs are often told in more odd and interesting ways that many struggle to wrap their head around; this film shows that too.
but for me, it is the childish way in which he tells pretty grown up stories: touching on adult, even mature topics with all the naivety, brevity and wit of a 10 year old. isle of dogs speaks of what is essentially complex political machinations and protest, the great budapest hotel talks about art and its strange relationships to violence and the more vulgar sides of life, and moonrise kingdom illustrates the freedom and clashes of youths even as they strive to embrace the more adult side of life.
"The French Dispatch", is a 1 hour 48 summary of all of those themes and more. which is why i reckon this is anderson's best film yet.
of course, with this film being essentially an anthology of four other smaller films, it does seem like a cop out to say that at first; definitely the quantity of what is said here is more than what is said in his other films. but it cannot be denied that the quality of this film more than props it up under that title as well: every single maximum 20 minute story (or at least in my humble opinion) is able to stand up by itself as an independent film. and seeing how many shows in the full length of 2 hours or more mostly fail nowadays, that itself is a remarkable feat.
"The French Dispatch"'s aforementioned stories refer to a collection of articles written in the title magazine. a cultural import from the city of Liberty, Kansas into the small French city of Ennui, France, it has soon, as the introductory narration of the film tells us, become quite a hit under the steady direction of its founder: Arthur Horowitz Jr. "half a million subscribers in 50 countries", the unknown voice assures us, with a retinue of established professional, talented, veteran writers.
the show is divided according to the different sections of this hypothetical magazine, where we begin with a description of the "charming" city of Ennui. [it really isn't, although it seems that the fictional author, Herbsaint Saverac, played by Owen Wilson, intends it that way]. we then segue into the Arts and Culture article written (or at least transcribed from a speech given) by JKL Berensen (played by Tilda Swinton), about the mad (but genius, as is wont) artist Moses Rosenthaler, his muse/guard Simone, and his jailmate turned art broker Cadazio. after that is a shift into a look at student political revolutionary Zeffirelli B and his involvement in the Chessboard Revolution that strikes Ennui in March, written by Lucinda Krementz. the penultimate section is about food, but also about a kidnapping, a talk show, and a look into the strange art of "police cooking", and its top pioneer of the cuisine, Lieutenant Nescaffier, all of which are recited word for word by Roebuck Wright, the owner of a"typographic" memory. last but not least, is the obituary section, for the founder, Arthur Horowitz Jr. who has died of a heart attack, alone, on his birthday. the obituary is written by all of his staff, as a collaborative effort.
based on that very poor summary alone, you may think the film to be disjointed; poorly edited, confusing and extremely hard to follow. and indeed, at first glance it does seem that way. the stories have barely any relation to each other, with not an obvious thread following them.
it's understandable to make that conclusion. but when you watch the film, anderson does not seem to give you that impression. the stories are unrelated, yes, but anderson ties them together in various ways. first, visually: he invokes his usual use of the pastel colour palettes: for the interior of the "Dispatch" offices; for a scene where Zefferelli compares both Krementz and Juliette, a fellow revolutionary and how they groom themselves in the bathroom, and the lighting of the room where Rosenthaler has painted his work into the walls.
but he also breaks with it; the common thread of black and white lighting is used not only as a way to remind the audience these stories are all within the same collection, but also to highlight the brighter colours even further: to bring out the startling colour of a showgirl's eyes, to emphasise the scene of people delighting in a meal around the table, and to impose upon the audience the red of blood.
next, it's the constant presence of horowitz, who serves not only as the aforementioned author but also as the common audience's anchor in the film, the top editor who reminds his writers that they are writing for a magazine, lest they (and we) get trapped in the fantastical stories and worlds they have created and become too divorced from reality.
but most importantly of all, it is what i believe is the point of the show: about the marriage, the copulation and the intersection between art, and journalism.
art is subjective. journalism is objective. that seems to be the given conclusion. but through "The French Dispatch", i believe that anderson has fully broken down that assumption.
in every single story, there is a strong attachment of art to it. in fact, two articles about forms of art itself: Berensen's article talks about Rosenthaler's paintings and the circumstances behind which they were created, and Wright's about food and the chef who created them. but aside from the surface level connection, art also permeates every part of the film: namely, the art of the written word. after all, every single story is narrated (at least in part) by their respective writers, and through these narrations, it is easy to tell each writer's (subtly) distinct writing styles. that alone, shows that journalism is not a homogenous bloc, but instead subject to human differences and unique quirks. krementz's writing is closer to reporting, with its clipped, short sentences giving an almost military like efficiency of information delivery. on the other hand, wright's prose flows and ebbs, describing events through poetry and even invokes on two occasions the mention of comic strips.
but the intersection between the art and the writing of the journalists does not stop there. when you peel back all the layers of anderson's show, he seems to be wanting us to draw the conclusion that the ultimate common factor between journalism and art is their telling of human stories. every writer seems to be imbue the story they're writing with humanity. in fact, save saverac (who literally cycles around Ennui as he describes it), every single writer is personally involved with the subject matter they're writing about. Berensen and Krementz both slept with the person they were profiling (to differing feelings about it: Berensen seems to have subsumed any feelings she has under the feeling of a large and overwhelming respect towards Rosenthaler, even as she confesses his insanity, while Krementz is more ambivalent; her "journalistic neutrality" and her clipped nature seem at odds with her care for the young revolutionary, and also is aware of the age differences), and while Wright does not also do that, he is a first-hand witness to Nescaffier's skill in cooking, and his later poisoning of the kidnappers of the commisaire (his employer)'s son. by virtue of their inclusion in the story, they are naturally inclined towards injecting otherwise cold, clinical reporting, with their own experiences and feelings, no matter how complex. that itself, humanises the people they write about.
that for me, is the triumph of the film. obviously the cinematography is great, i adore the dialogue (witty and snappy, and i especially enjoyed the interesting back and forth between french and english), the costumes are also marvelous, and the actors, both recurring and new, all played their roles sublimely. but i LOVED most the humanity of the stories told. as i mentioned above, the themes brought through sucked me into the show: loneliness, youths striving to carve their place in a world they may not have grown up into yet, the foreignness of an adopted land; suffering, joy, pain, whimsy. and most importantly, connection, the backbone of the homo sapiens race.
IN SUM: i love "The French Dispatch". it's hard to understand, but maybe because i'm a writer, so i connected to it immediately. and although the town is called "ennui" (french for boredom, listlessness), for me, it is anderson's best work.