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  • Writer's pictureCade Earick

"The French Dispatch:" How Wes Anderson Visualizes the Press

This past Friday I had the wonderful opportunity to experience Wes Anderson’s newest addition to his incredible body of work: The French Dispatch. I went in without much knowledge about what I was going to see on screen. I had seen a trailer for the film back when it was first announced, which seems like ages ago, but it’s incredibly fulfilling to finally see it in the theater, especially after a long period where it seemed that the physical cinema might be unfortunately on the way out. It was like when I saw my first concert after the quarantine, absolutely blissful. This was something I took into account when formulating my thoughts on The French Dispatch, an important cross section and analysis of what biases that may pertain to myself, as well as my longstanding love for Wes’ filmography, who happens to be my favorite director of all time.

What I always appreciated was the diversity of Anderson's body of work, and this movie is no different. I feel that this is Anderson’s foray into the genre of anthology films, and done in a way that is uniquely his own. The best anthology works are able to find an overarching concept— the alternate dimension of The Twilight Zone, the noir exploration of Sin City, the golden briefcase of Pulp Fiction— and I’m surprised that the idea of the press is one that has been yet to be explored, and if it has been I feel that this will cement it’s place as the press anthology film (as niche as that category may be). There’s a lot of success in many of the different aspects of The French Dispatch: the performances are memorable, as memorable as it’s cast; it’s well written, one of Anderson’s wittiest films, which I appreciate; but where this movie succeeds the most is in the composition. Anderson has always been known for meticulous detail in crafting his films, but I feel that this is the most precise of his career, which is saying a lot. There’s no doubt that The French Dispatch will confuse many that enter the theater, I know that for myself there were certain quirks about the film that took a while to catch onto, however once these are understood, it really transforms the experience of the film as a whole. I remember once it actually occurred to me just what Anderson was doing, I immediately took out my phone and started to jot down notes.

Spoiler alert: I will be diving into the stories and concepts of The French Dispatch, so if interested in seeing the film, I highly recommend viewing before reading this. However if you’re interested, please continue on.

The French Dispatch is divided into five major sections: Introduction, Story 1, Story 2, Story 3, and the Closing. These different sections follow the different stories and ideas of the fictional French Dispatch magazine, each written and narrated by their respective writers, except for the Introduction and Closing which is narrated by the story’s overall narrator, assumed a worker/writer for the dispatch. Each story and section takes on the respective tone and writing style of each author, as described in the introduction of said authors, and as the title cards for each article came on screen alongside their section and page numbers of the magazine, I could feel the wheels in my brain starting to turn. I began to come to the understanding that Anderson was visually giving us the fictional magazine, connected by the writers writing it. And with this context, the structure began to make sense: the opening of the film witnesses the death of Andrew Howitzer Jr, as portrayed by Bill Murray, who is the owner and operator of The French Dispatch. We understand that due to said passing, that this would be the final edition of The French Dispatch, as stated in Howitzer’s will. While I at first just saw this as exposition for us to understand the magazine, I realized that the narrator was actually narrating the words that were printed in the introduction of the magazine. These sections of narration as I took it were the actual written word of The French Dispatch, and similarly the closer was the final words to be printed and spoken to the public. This structure is one that takes a while to grasp onto without prior knowledge, but makes the movie click.

Within the actual stories are being told, there are many interesting editing and cinematography decisions made by Anderson which are again, a bit confusing at first. However with the understanding now that we are as an audience reading the magazine, these decisions (as interpreted by myself) beautifully portray the different aspects of the magazine. First comes with color: the shifting of black and white to color. When we read newspapers or magazines, especially in the time period that this film seems to portray itself, the inside would be printed as black and white, maybe with the occasional color photo, and I found that the black and white represented often what was written in the magazine, and the cinematography I feel too helps cement this idea. Most of the black and white sections of the film are shot with still and linear movement, often what we come to expect to see in a Wes Anderson film, and represent the stillness of many photographs and stillness captured in writing. This then contrasted with the color sections of the film, which in general have more movement in the camera shots, I find represent the story outside of what’s written in the magazine. These stories will often blend outside dialogue and actions which are not portrayed in the writing of the magazine, but which are fundamental to understanding the stories and characters. The press is often trying to be unbiased, and will not have the pinpoint accuracy of a novel or a film script. But without this accuracy, the film would become much more disjointed, and luckily I feel that Anderson found a great balance of this approach. Now, this is not as cut and dry in terms of sections, there are sometimes where these rules become crossed over, but that’s ok. Anderson is giving us an abstract and artistic interpretation of the press, and I find that this a great way of doing it.

With these differing sections of color grading that we encounter during the film, there's one more technique that Anderson uses to really tie everything together: mixed media. The act of combining different mediums in film is something that has been done for a long time, but not a technique often seen in Wes’ films, but I feel this approach again really contributes to the solidity of the story and structure. Some of the longer drawn out action sequences are represented in 2d animation, which I find is easily interpreted as a comic strip. While maybe a comic strip would be odd to encounter in the middle of a normal publication, this is The French Dispatch, get over it. This is not only supported by the picturesque quality of each shot, but as well these sections of the film do not contain any dialogue, except for the occasional gasp or expression from a character, an homage to onomatopoeia. This not only addresses the issue of what actions are to be portrayed in the magazine, but also emphasizes these sequences much more than their real-life counterparts.

The French Dispatch is yet another example of excellent cinema. Much like many of Wes Anderson’s films, I feel that this is a movie that overtime will be analyzed in future college lectures and classes, attributed to its pinpoint accuracy and close attention to detail. Due to this, I also am of the belief that this is a movie with replay value; one can watch this movie many many times, and still continue to get more out of each subsequent viewing. It can be confusing, fast-paced, and head-scratching at first glance, but in a good way. Is it thought provoking and deep beyond belief? No, but it’s not surface level either. You can find the different little details in this film, you just have to find them hiding in plain sight. While this may not be the best Wes Anderson film to ever exist, it’s again a great piece of cinema that will hold its place in the anthology film genre and in cinema as a whole. Just be sure to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, and don’t get too lost in the footnotes.

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