Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch
Anderson’s latest film recognizes that writers are as much a part of their stories as the story is itself.
The French Dispatch
(Searchlight Pictures, 2021)
There are several moments within Wes Anderson’s new picture, The French Dispatch (2021), that feature the character of “Cheery Writer” awkwardly lingering in the background either eating an apple or reading a paperback (and sometimes both). All of Cheery Writer’s scenes take place within the headquarters of the French Dispatch Magazine, the fictional American newspaper outpost located in the also fictional French city of Ennui. Played by Wally Wolodarksy, Cheery Writer—as the odd, comedic relief is listed in the official cast credits—speaks no lines. He actually has no discernible narrative bearing on the entire film. All we learn of Cheery Writer is that he has been employed by the Dispatch for over thirty years and has never published a single piece. So why does he stand out to me when he’ll most likely go unnoticed by others?
The abiding presence of Cheery Writer within the walls of the Dispatch and the world of Anderson’s film is part of what distinguishes The French Dispatch as a film wholly devoted and dedicated to the work-world imaginaries of writers. How many writers have known a Cheery Writer in their career? Although this writer doesn’t get “work” done (i.e. published), their absence in the halls, among the cubicles, and around the water cooler would undoubtedly be noticed. They are spiritually integral to a writer’s space and imagination. Wes Anderson knows this.
While many focus on the visual signatures of Anderson’s oeuvre—the symmetrical composition, playful miniatures, whimsical action, pastel art decoration, etc.—often overlooked is the genius of world-building that comes down to Anderson as not just director, but writer-director. That isn’t to say that cinemagoers shouldn't come to expect the typical visual flair we associate with Anderson pictures (there is much to visually admire), but that this film sets itself apart from his previous work via the heart poured into scene after scene, which comes through best in its script.
Featuring a “story by” credit long enough to be the cast of the film itself (including Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman), Anderson’s screenplay is a testament to crafting a world rich with fascinatingly zany characters and it does quite a convincing job of capturing writers and their voices within the stories they craft. Every section of the film works, as each of their various elements coalesce into fashioning rich and colorful anecdotes about story and writer simultaneously. The film is more than just its several narratives—it is also about the ubiquity of the writer within the texts they author.
The French Dispatch is designed as an issue of the magazine itself. The film’s narrative structure unfolds as a series of articles (played as vignettes) reprinted in its final issue following the death of its longstanding editor, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Anderson regular Bill Murray, among the many other regulars). Composed largely of three seemingly unrelated vignettes that proceed Herbsaint Sazerac’s (Owen Wilson) intricate bicycle report on the city of Ennui, the film offers the pages of the Dispatch brought to life, intercut with narrative exposition provided by each writer and some edits brought on by Howitzer, Jr.
If some of the criticism of The French Dispatch faults the film for the unrelatedness of its three vignettes, then much of that sentiment comes as a gross miscalculation by those unfamiliar with or unwilling to expand what stories can do. The stories within the film are wholly self-contained as articles should be, and play to their strengths as succinct, articulate stories. Asking this picture to arbitrarily thread its triptych parts together for some deliberate sense of narrative cohesion is a disservice to the contemplation provoked by Anderson’s structure of the film-as-magazine and his integration of the writers themselves into their stories.
The first article we experience is “The Concrete Masterpiece,” a story within a lecture on (self) tortured artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) by writer and Rosenthaler enthusiast (and possible one-time lover), J.K.L Berensen (Tilda Swinton). The lecture covers Rosenthaler’s life, particularly his stint in an Ennui prison where Rosenthaler occupies himself painting abstract nudes of his muse/prison guard, Simone (Léa Seydoux).
When another prisoner, a tax-evading art dealer named Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody) comes upon Rosenthaler’s paintings, he commits himself to selling and launching Rosenthaler as the next mainstay of the arts. After a few years of selling Rosenthaler on the art scene, an anticipated unveiling of Rosenthaler’s masterwork painted, unbeknownst to Cadazio, upon the walls of the prison itself culminates into an outrageous affair.
The Rosenthaler exposé provokes questions of love and exploitation, as well as beauty, through the act and admiration of painting. While Rosenthaler’s tortured self yearns for a meaning to his life or an end to his suffering, Simone, as his muse, provokes a contemplation on what’s worth living for and how that culminates into art. The fact that the paintings themselves are manifested onto the walls of the prison speaks to the conjuncture of time, space, and emotion that art (and, thus, writing) attempts to emulate. We can feel Berensen’s admiration for Rosenthaler the subject, but also the story itself as hers (as writer) to tell.
“Revisions to a Manifesto,” the second of the triptych of articles showcased in the film, offers the most typical of stories we’ve come to anticipate of Anderson. Told to us from the perspective of Dispatch writer Lucinda Krementz (the always terrific Frances McDormand), the vignette offers coverage of protests led by an Ennui youth rebel, aptly named Zeffirelli (Timotheé Chalamet). The politics of the protests are illegible. One of the only discernible quandaries is the fight over access for boys in the all-girls dormitory. But the politics don’t matter here. Center stage is the rebellious spirit of teen angst with no endgame in sight.
As a tried and true reporter, Lucinda pledges her journalistic neutrality, which gets redefined when she sleeps with Zeffirelli and again when she provides edits and an appendix to his wide-eyed manifesto. Implicit and quite prevalent in this piece is Lucinda’s recognition of her former self in the naive spirit of Ennui’s youth. Her various implications within her report signal the ways writers not only experience the stories they tell, but also leave traces of themselves within them.
The final act of the film is the recounting of “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) who seems, through his lyric prose and demeanor, to be channeling the great James Baldwin. Told to us as a story within a retelling of the story, Roebuck recounts a private dinner with the Ennui’s commissaire de Police (Mathieu Amalric) catered by famous police lieutenant/chef, Nescaffier (Stephen Park). The dinner is interrupted by the kidnapping of the commissaire’s child, Gigi (Winsen Ait Hellal), who is later rescued by Nescaffier when he poisons the kidnappers and almost succumbs to the poison himself.
The vignette is interrupted by the Dispatch’s editor, Howitzer, Jr., who instructs Roebuck to reinsert a deleted conclusion wherein a recovering Nescaffier dishes out to Roebuck the uniqueness of the poison’s taste, as something he’s never had before. There lies a sense of awe in the taste of the unknown. Nescaffier’s proximity to death and Roebuck’s rendering of it do more to convey where the experience of writing—imbued with emotion and innocence—can take us than where the words can lead us. Without Howitzer, Jr.’s crucial editorial decision here, the piece is only a spectacle. Anderson’s narrative choice of recognizing Howitzer, Jr.’s editorial decision highlights how stories get made and thus crafted to transcend their status as just a story. Howitzer, Jr. gives the film its connective tissue—the stories thrive and the issue works because of his editorial discretion.
As many seasoned and robust critics have noted, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is a love letter to the many American newspaper and magazine writers of the mid-to-late twentieth century. Perhaps more poignant, however, would be to claim that the film is a love letter to writers and the craft of writing itself.
For the past ten years, I have been surrounded by writers of various capabilities and capacities, inside academic circles, within creative workshops, and most recently as editor for the Brooklyn Rail. In that time, I have personally witnessed the trials and turmoil writers put themselves through over things like titles, concepts, beginnings, conclusions, dialogue, description, editing, rewriting, theorizing, word choice, etc. Simultaneously, I have seen writers get wistfully carried by the winds of their stories, the stretches of their imaginations, and the will of their pen put to paper (or, more than not, their fingers to keyboards). Anderson’s film is devoted to the spirit of writing, which consists of both the writers and the stories they tell.
Stories don’t just happen, they are crafted. Writers are as much a part of their stories as the story is itself. But what does that mean for who gets to write a story and where those stories are heard? And for whom? This isn’t The French Dispatch’s concern, but it ought to be ours.
The French Dispatch is a Wes Anderson picture I find myself wishing I could experience again for the first time. Although many of Anderson’s world’s are fully developed and rich with details and subtleties (many which cannot be covered here), the world in which the Dispatch exists feels like a capsule of a time that is and yet never was. It’s dreamy. Fantastically delightful. Most especially for a writer.
The offices of the Dispatch feel like a second home (and perhaps the closest I’ve come into contact with the Rail, working remotely and across the country). The film closes with various editors and writers of the Dispatch (including but not limited to Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, and Fisher Stevens) discussing the obituary of their Howitzer, Jr. and the creation of this final issue. Anderson chooses to end the film with the beginnings of the issue. Where one process seems to end, another begins.
In closing, I hope I can continue to write in a world where I know there is a Cheery Writer just around the corner, whom I never have to interact with. I just want to know they are there and that my writing counts for something, even if that something is just for myself.