By Bradley Lane
It’s hard enough to write a good script in a consistent voice, but a cohesive screenplay comprised of the voices of its own characters is an achievement in itself.
I’ve never understood the critique that Wes Anderson’s 2021 film The French Dispatch is lacking in emotion because for me this might be Anderson’s most expressive work. Both on a large scale across the film and the smaller scale in each of the segments, framed as written pieces by different journalists as part of the fictional magazine The French Dispatch, based in part on The New Yorker magazine.
The first major vignette made me feel closer to the art I love and gave me a deeper appreciation for the struggle involved in their creation. The tortured artist is a cliché Anderson twists into a nuanced (and hilarious) exploration of the material conditions all artwork is created in today. It’s a given of course, but to consider this fully, re-contextualizes the work I love, and is a lovely bit of reflection provided to me courtesy of the wonderful Tilda Swinton as J.K.L. Berensen.
The second short is permeated with a gooey nostalgia toward the romanticism and innocence of youth. I suppose even if I’m not entitled to it (being so young as it is) I empathize with a youthful spirit not yet beaten into submission by the realities of this world. Struggles of mortal importance sit side by side with worries about changing bodies and how you’re perceived by people you don’t even care about. Frances McDormand’s seemingly impenetrable Krementz can’t even escape the pull of these doomed children fighting for a better world despite the whole force of that world against them. It’s a sentiment I feel too young to identify with, but I can’t deny in the time since I’ve graduated from a university, even I’ve soured toward the idea that structural change is possible. In romanticizing this struggle I find myself being kinder to the part of myself that seeks change despite how dark the road ahead might seem. It’s like giving myself license to hope, and I’m thankful a film can do something like that.
The final piece is my personal favorite and the one I struggle to fully describe most. The uncomfortable treatment of Jeffery Wright’s Roebuck Wright in the company of a foreign police force is ever present. It does such an amazing job of keeping this threat at the forefront of the audience’s mind despite the action of the story being so audacious and bombastic. The link between Wright and Stephen Park’s Nescafé reveals itself slowly but becomes increasingly obvious as the scene progresses. As minorities, at all times they are under expectations that everyone else involved in the story can’t even fathom, despite of course unconsciously being the ones enforcing those expectations. Its powerful idea that only through excelling at their work can these two minority characters escape the oppressive expectations of their existence in Western society.
What all of these stories share is the way each of the journalists find new parts of themselves through their work. Each of them barely covers their assigned topic but through their perspectives find the details that speak to their personal truths, creating a larger, more universal truth for the audience. And for me that’s what I love about good journalism, it speaks just as much to the subject as the person behind the keyboard. This relationship to the written word also highlights my favorite piece of technical filmmaking here and that’s the sparse use of color within the main three segments. All of the segments are mainly filmed in black and white, except for bold sudden uses of color that seem to disappear just as soon as they appear. To me this simulates the mental images summoned by beautiful prose, laser focused on the most important details of a story. Rarely are these splashes of color utilized on what might be the focal point of the piece but rather they highlight the details each writer seems most important. The focus a writer can give to the smallest details of a story create lasting impressions on an audience and translating that magic into another medium is dazzling to me.
The French Dispatch received positive but mixed reviews upon its release last year, but it remains one of the year’s best and a must watch for lovers of good film and great journalism. It is available to stream on HBO Max. – 5/5 stars