THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

‘The French Dispatch’ — Wes Anderson’s lettre d’amour to journalism

Why The French Dispatch is one of Wes Anderson's most important statements about arts and craft

Writer’s note: The writer of “Wes Anderson’s lettre d’amour to journalism” watched the film “The French Dispatch” on opening night in his area and had originally composed the article on a pocket-sized notepad only to transfer and expand into a rough draft via typewriter. It was finalized on a virtual document and touched up for release.

Prologue

Delivering four short narratives akin to a magazine, “The French Dispatch” tells one article per section of a fictional magazine called the French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun.


Through Wes Anderson’s charming and quirky directing and writing style, this anthology film does not simply tell stories that are in the written publication’s magazine. Instead, we are hand delivered a breathtaking coup d’oeil inside the lives of the writers who had stories ready for press, purveying an enriched experience within the world of journalism.

Spoilers below this point. Proceed with caution.


Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), a college freshman eager to escape the bright future on the great plains, convinced his father to fund his transatlantic passage as an educational opportunity to learn the family business. In doing so, other events alongside this journey placed him as the founder and editor-in-chief of a beloved French-inspired American publication.

Over the next 10 years, Arthur H. J. gathered himself the best journalists of his time and created The French Dispatch – a factual, weekly report on the subjects of world politics, the arts (high and low), fashion, fancy cuisine, and fine drinks, and diverse stories of human interest. This fictional American-based publication set on the streets of 20th-century France brought the wonders of the world to Kansas.

The “best journalists” weren’t the best due to the general capabilities most people hold. Instead, the gathered bunch of exceptional writers held talents vastly distinct from the next. Some of the reporters that Arthur had gathered had their own way of being the “best”: one was privately blind but wrote keenly through the eyes of others, a young contestant crackerjack who could mass-collect critiques; another was known as the best living writer in quality in sentences per minute, while there was one writer that never completed a single article yet lingered the halls for three decades, and providing cover illustrations for the publication was the task of Hermès Jones (Jason Schwartzman).

Like most worthwhile news and publication outlets, the quality of work worth reading isn’t solely based on regurgitated information concerning topics; it isn’t created using a bland, rigid work style, but it is alluring purely by those who are creatively diverse in their approaches: by writers, reporters, artists, and photographers of differing backgrounds. Publications in which articles are not identical because the journalists themselves are not. Like many journalists, reporters, and writers, it is them that inks our pages with color with their driving dedication and differing interests.

THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Local Colour

Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) describes several locations within the French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé while cycling through the streets of several districts. Educating us of their history over the course of two hundred and fifty years in brief. Beginning with the lovely city’s foundations, only to cycle into what sites were built, and moreover, what people filled each location, only to end on what condition those places are in now as well for what type of people fill them in present time. 

As if speaking directly to us of those places, Sazerac reveals this from an uncommon and unusual perspective, telling of each location not from his perspective, but alternatively expresses the sights and atmosphere through the shoes of those who tread those history-filled streets and passageways. We are told that most buildings’ names remain unchanged, unlike the people that walk the stone laid streets of Ennui. One location he visited held a flea market vending all forms of comestibles under a single vast glass and cast iron canape, which was later torn down for a shopping center and parking structure. Another place that remained the same was aptly-dubbed “Pickpocket Cul-De-Sac,” still notorious for pickpocketing activity that preys on unsuspecting passersby. As for its inhabitants: cats that found homes along slanted rooftops, while in the Flock Quarter, there gathered hungry students all restless and reckless. As for the Hobble District, it’s full of older people. A district Sazerac describes holding “old people who have failed.”

While his narrative isn’t a style one would often find because of its poetic depicters dashed with a personal touch in word choice, such a characteristic style within journalism can hold similar for some journalists, regardless of their subject. Taking a standard narrative style of delivering information then adding a personal twist proves that even unconventional artists in literature can procure great work worth a read and still be a journalist.


Arts and Artists

J.K.L Berensen (Tilda Swinton) presents her gathered exploration of Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro) artistic journey to proclaimed fame and his artwork, which propelled him to standing current popular status on stage through slides and narration. 

While on stage, Berensen begins explaining where Rosenthaler’s work was noticed only to then brief the audience on Moses’ youth – how it was scored by poverty, alcoholism and violence — remaining sure to hit key moments that had occurred throughout his life up until the event which placed him in prison, before deep diving into what pushed the jailed artists to fame. Telling of his most infamous work that started her exploration on the life of Rosenthaler and his craft. 

She informs that Rosenthaler primary notorious painting titled “Simone, Naked, Cell Block-J Hobby Room” was first noticed by a fellow inmate, Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), in a mess hall at an exhibition displaying a group show of amateur artisans incarcerated in the lunatic section of the Ennui Prison Asylum. Of course, Berensen didn’t leave out the fact Julien Cadazio — an art dealer— happened to be imprisoned in the enjoining Enix on the charge of second-degree sales tax evasion. Imprisoned artist Rosenthaler was immediately offered a price for “Simone, Naked, Cell Block-J Hobby Room” by Cadazio after the art dealer became attached to its nuanced style known as modern art. So much so, the dealer waged artist Rosenthaler selling prices until he agreed on a non-prison currency offer. Little did Rosenthaler know, accepting this sale would both drive him up in recognition and down in creative enjoyment.

Because Cadazio enjoyed this modern art that first captivated the eye, he demanded the criminal to paint for him again. This demand for production carried through Rosenthaler’s current serving 50-year prison sentence at the time. A sentence he was given for committing a double homicide. Agreeing to provide such demands of the art dealer – art which was displayed, auctioned, and globalized – rocketed the delinquent’s recognition within the world of art. Each painting featured the convict’s singular muse. He had caught romantic emotions towards a woman during his early surviving years, a woman who became his posing figure for all paintings. The mistress was a prison guard named Simone (Léa Seydoux), with whom he also became romantically involved.

One day Moses Rosenthaler was told about an art showing that was to occur. The now suffering artist must deliver a creation like never before and that the exhibition would be within the prison walls. He was informed of a mass crowd Cadazio would bring just to see this demanded new work. All people who found the paintings just as displaced yet beautiful. Journalist Berensen tells of what happened during that exhibition to the sitting audience. Narrating that, after years of creating, did, in fact, create a grandiose piece of art. Moses Rosenthaler called it “Ten Reinforced Cement Aggregate (Load-bearing) Murals”; they were all of Simone. She explains that, while it was the most masterful piece of work he’d created, art dealer Julien Cadazio became enraged over one simple fact: it wasn’t distributable due to it being plastered into the cement walls of the highly secure prison. Only later on a resolution was formed for the artwork to be transferred to Liberty where it rests on the plains of Kansas to be viewed to date.

Although what is to be said holds no resemblance concerning being an artist or an art seller, a method of reporting and informing can be seen. A choice in subject and topic writing isn’t uncommon in journalism but rather a depleting one when favored for quick-paced publications of ongoing current events. 

Writing about a person or event after it happened or even during it is an acceptable form of journalistic reporting. Not all stories strictly involve reporters being on the ground or around the events they write, and one can still write and report about things that had already occurred as it would still hold importance and meaning. This style of reporting helps reduce affixing false or miss-gathered information to the narrative. It additionally serves in maintaining a smooth read and keeps things from being spread out, which reduces confusion. All this depends on the story, of course. But this method of reporting isn’t a bland or passive root for writing. Instead, it can be seen used for people and places that hold historical significance.

Tilda Swinton in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Politics / Poetry

Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) narrates her article, which covers the “Chessboard Revolution.” The story observes a student-led protest that originated utterly over “the right of free access to the girls’ dormitory for all male students” by a group of undergraduates. Although it ended in a stalemate, quite literally, such desire concerning free access to the girls’ dormitory expanded past the school walls. It developed into something broader—a revolution.


While at dinner, Krementz runs into de-facto leader Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) in the bathroom as he wrote upon a damp pocket-sized notepad in the tub. Their conversation was brief, and the young man asked her to proofread his manifesto — a piece of work that would become a playing factor in the movement. This involvement with the movement was minuscule at this point. Still, she found herself continuously making revisions to the piece as developments concerning young activists demanding their freedom towards their elders on the streets of Ennui marched on.

Through her increased personal involvement within the action, both between the lines of a developing manifesto and her brief romantic relationship with the activist that was writing it, the reporter slowly blurs her own preached stance of maintaining “journalistic neutrality”. Which begs the question as to who is genuinely influencing the revolution.

A topic often debated about its existence within journalism. A term most, if not all who walk the unpaved grounds of reporting, will come across. Some journalists say journalistic neutrality isn’t an existing concept within journalism due to the level of involvement its writers engage in for the stories. Others might argue that journalists must always hold neutrality; when not writing an opinion piece. How could the writer keep their article captivating and worth a read without the use of descriptive words? Reporters often end up involved in their stories to obtain the information required. 

That be on a personal level or from interactions with various sources. The existence of journalistic neutrality could be waged on the perception that one must fully disconnect oneself from personal stances and viewpoints when writing about politics, the economy, fashion, food, or any other discussable topic while remaining on neutral grounds. 

For what it all means: the person(s) writing a story must remain separate from their story. They mustn’t become a playing influence on the events they write about. Writers must remain honest in gathering, reporting, and interpreting information. That delivered information must be cut-dry and transparent. All this should never deliberately be distorting facts and context; that includes distorting visual context. Keeping this neutral stance while reporting keeps fact and preserves transparency amidst their reports on politics, health, history, and otherworldly matters. In short: this long-standing and debated style of reporting keeps stories as unswayed as possible.

Tastes & Smells 

Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) recites his article to a talk-show host regarding how a private dinner with the Ennui Police Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric), his mother, and his oldest friend — described to Wright as once “a girlish little schoolboy” when they first met only to now “look like a corps,” — took a swift turn after a call from a group of criminals that spoke of kidnapping Commissaire’s son Gigi (Winston Ait Hellal), rang. This commenced a series of action stuffed incidents to concur as the father seeks back his son from the abductores.

Events occurred as follows: starting from a chase to stop the kidnapper from leaving the point ‘A’ – the home. Next, a group of trained police and investigators worked on filtering the location of the kidnapper’s “lair” out of a man. Once reaching the secret hideout, access inside was presented when the young boy asked for food. Willing to take that risk, the miscreants asked for the chef to prepare and deliver the meal – not just for Gigi, but for all. The meal was walked over and placed upon the table after being prepared by legendary police-chef Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park). Before all who sat around the food dug in, Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park) was asked to digest a bite of each item before the band of lawbreakers hungrily consumed the cooked meals. The chef placed poison in the radishes knowing Gigi despised them enough to not consume the vegetable. Such tactical thinking to poison the food ensured the boy’s safe return home. Concluding the high paced narrative.

Perfectly recited back, this selected food article told of hectic events that had occurred while Ennui police Commissaire brought his son safely into his arms once more after his kidnapping and the described brave act of the chef. Hardly a single detail or spoken word appeared left out. His story held not a dull moment for those who read or listened to Wright’s article. Nothing seemed lacking from the narrative that would improve its quality. Everything significant was there, laid out in a perfect read. Throughout the telling, it would become apparent this article wasn’t about the police father and his journey towards retrieving his son safely. It was about the brave chef Lt. Nescaffier.

Chef Nescaffier’s bravery wasn’t exclusively about how he was willing to consume the poison he’d planted into the radishes so that Gigi’s return would be possible. It wasn’t the fact that he was brave enough to stand in a room full of deranged criminals. Such perceived bravery of the chef by the eyes of Wright came from words whispered behind closed doors to the reporter. Words nearly kept out of his article despite the impact it held both on himself and the article. 

Softly spoken between two men by the recovering chef were his reasons for consuming the poisonous radishes. The overseas working cook expressed to Wright it wasn’t bravery that aided in the consumption of such toxin. The lieutenant hardly saw himself as brave. Instead, it was the desire to not be a disappointment. Speaking as he rested in solidarity uniformity with Wright, “I’m not brave — I just didn’t want to be a disappointment to everyone.” 

What might have also been left out of the article was that Lt. Nescaffier spoke of being a foreigner. All this was to be left out by Wright due to it being “too sad” to incorporate and conceivably too personal to include since he, himself, fell under similar pressure of being a foreigner upon the streets of this French town.

Not every gathered bits of information makes the printing press. Some words said or details end up scrapped. It shows that while some parts of the story could end up cut, that parts of the gathered story are thought not to be included – another may see it vital to add. That convince isn’t a risky gamble on a quote or portion that is worthy of adding- something that just might make it worth the read. All in all, whether it be both parties (editor and the writer) or one that sees the material worthy, it is the writer’s final call, not the editor. And this conflict to add or not add something to your writing is something all journalists can resonate with. 

Bill Murray and Pablo Pauly in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Epilogue

The French Dispatch came into existence because of Wes Anderson’s desire to make a film that paid tribute to The New Yorker. In doing so it brought us back to a time almost forgotten. Where funds from paid prescriptions kept writers like Roebuck Wright (based on James Baldwin and A. J. Liebling writers for The New Yorker), Herbsaint Sazerac (based on Joseph Mitchell writer for The New Yorker), Arthur Howitzer Jr. (based on Harold Ross. Founder and long-time editor-in-chief of The New Yorker), Lucinda Krementz (based on Mavis Gallant writer for The New Yorker), J.K.L Berensen (based on S. N. Behrman writer for The New Yorker), and many others in our reality with extraordinary talents on the page for the world to enjoy their highly specific stories. 

While I can go on about director Wes Anderson’s factual long-living passion for The New Yorker, its writers (past and present) and its inner workings, this isn’t that type of story. At least this time around it isn’t.

This film isn’t only going to show and tell you of the stories featured in the last publication of a fictitious magazine the French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. It will place you alongside the inner world with captivating insight into their lives. Showcasing experiences that nearly all journalists have or will encounter from (nearly) leaving a quote out (if not for the editor-in-chief) due to personal reasons to skimming the line of journalistic neutrality, I believe Wes Anderson charmingly summarises and epitomized the more uplifting side within the true world of journalism.


Logan Kent

Logan is an ambitious, yet head-strong, "underdog." He strives to support the overlooked and bring attention to both big and small happenings in the world through journalism.

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