The French Dispatch is many things—a bounty of stories within stories within memories within frameworks that converges into one organic whole, a cabinet of cinematic wonders of all shapes and sizes in constant dynamic motion, a love letter to the printed word in general and The New Yorker magazine in particular, to France and to French movies…a moving meditation on living far from home. And it is never just one of those elements at a time, but usually all at once.
From the visionary mind of Wes Anderson, The French Dispatch brings to life a collection of stories from the final issue of an American magazine published in a fictional 20th-century French city.
On the occasion of the death of its beloved Kansas-born editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr., the staff of The French Dispatch, a widely circulated American magazine based in the French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, convenes to write his obituary. Memories of Howitzer flow into the creation of four stories: a travelogue of the seediest sections of the city itself from The Cycling Reporter; “The Concrete Masterpiece,” about a criminally insane painter, his guard and muse, and his ravenous dealers; “Revisions to a Manifesto,” a chronicle of love and death on the barricades at the height of student revolt; and “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” a suspenseful tale of drugs, kidnapping and fine dining.
“I remember reading an interview with Tom Stoppard in which someone asked him where one of his plays came from and he said that it’s always two different beginnings of an idea for something that he puts together and that becomes the next play. That’s exactly what happens to me every single time. So this movie is actually three things: a collection of short stories, something I’ve always wanted to do; a movie inspired by The New Yorker and the kind of writer they’re famous for publishing; and, I’ve spent a lot of time in France over the years and I’ve always wanted to do a French movie, and a movie that was related to French cinema,” says Anderson, whose is from a story by Anderson & Roman Coppola & Hugo Guinness & Jason Schwartzman.
For Anderson, The New Yorker has been a touchstone since high school
“When I was in tenth grade, my home room in Houston was in the library, and across from me were these wooden racks of magazines. There was one with illustration on the cover, and I started looking at it. I became a regular reader of The New Yorker in my home room waiting for school to begin. I started reading the back issues and picking up the names of the writers that appeared over and over again. So, I got really hooked.”
“When we were rooming together in college,” says Owen Wilson, “he was reading The New Yorker all the time, which was quite unusual. I can’t remember if he had a subscription—that might have been out of reach financially—but he was deep into it. What a thoughtful gift to all those writers.”
“It’s about the type of magazine article that you would read that would bring you somewhere, before Google and live streaming,” says producer Jeremy Dawson, “and it would really give you a sense of place—the smells and the taste and the character— through the words of somebody with this ability to evoke images in your mind.”
“It’s a film that celebrates the written word in a way that’s a healthy thing for our country now,” says Jeffrey Wright, “when we’ve lost an appreciation for language and for intelligence as expressed through language.”
“In this film, the relationship to the written word is occurring at many different levels,” adds Anderson. “There’s what you’re seeing on the screen, there are the subtitles, there’s the texture of the magazine, and there’s the value of the relationship to writers and to a kind of writing that people feel is being lost now. The hero of each story is a writer.”
“I think it’s hard to make the creative process compelling, to make it come alive,” says Wilson, “but that’s what he does in this movie.”
Wes Anderson’s love affair with French cinema began when he was young
“French cinema begins when cinema begins, with the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès. I love the directors of the thirties, Julien Duvivier, Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille stories, the films of Jean Grémillon, which I came to more recently. And then Jacques Tati, Jean-Pierre Melville, and the New Wave filmmakers—Truffaut, Louis Malle, Godard. And maybe at the center of it all is Jean Renoir.” For the character of Rosenthaler, one particular fim by Renoir was an inspiration. “Wes mentioned a French movie called Boudu Saved from Drowning,” says Benicio del Toro, a 1930s movie with one of the great actors of all time, Michel Simon, as a hobo. I had seen it a long time ago and it’s a great movie, and watching it again gave me an idea of what he had in mind for the character.
For the past several years, Anderson himself has been based in France, and THE FRENCH DISPATCH is also a love letter to his adopted country, and at the same time an artistic reflection from an outsider looking in. “The film is born out of his love for French cinema, literature, and culture and his experiences in France over the past decade or more,” says his longtime editor Andrew Weisblum, “and I think that’s what he wanted to reference and share in this movie.”
“This movie is comprised of visions of France,” says French-born composer Alexandre Desplat, “that have been a bit twisted because they went through Wes’ brain. So, you can say that it’s France, but it’s a poetic France, with many details and references that sometimes are not true, but they seem true. Is it the real France? No, but somehow, it’s French.”
For Anderson, the filmmaking process is 100% organic from start to finish. That begins with the writing
“It’s a real adventure to work on these things,” says longtime collaborator Jason Schwartzman, who co-wrote the story with Anderson and Roman Coppola and plays the role of the magazine’s cartoonist.
“The stories are sort of concocted in real time. There’s not some big outline or something that you’re filling in. You’re literally creating each moment as you get to it. It’s sort of like building a bridge while you’re on the bridge, and that’s what’s really exciting. When you wake up in the morning you really have no idea what could happen to the story, to the characters, and that is such an exciting place to be. It’s free form but focused, and Wes is the captain of the ship.”
The first extended story, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” is framed within a lecture given at a Kansas arts center by the writer of the story, J.K.L. Berenson (Tilda Swinton), inspired by the lecturer and writer Rosamond Bernier.
“Many years ago, I wrote a script about a painter—it’s something I was always drawn to, and some of this comes from that. The New Yorker pieces that became S.N. Behrman’s great book Duveen, about the art collector Joseph Duveen, were central. We have some aspects of Emile de Antonio’s film, Painters Painting. And then there’s the Scorsese section of New York Stories, “Life Lessons”—that’s a major influence on this thing, too,” says Anderson.
“Revisions to a Manifesto” is Anderson’s refracted version of one of the central events in 20th century French history, the events of May ’68, when student protests led to a massive movement that shut down the entire country. The storyline is loosely inspired by student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s call for sexual freedom at the French university in Nanterre, but for Wes, it really begins “less than a block away from our apartment in Paris, near Montparnasse where Mavis Gallant lived,” referring to the Canadian writer who inspired Frances McDormand’s character, Lucinda Krementz.
“She had so many great pieces and short stories that were published in The New Yorker over the years, often set in Paris. And she wrote about the events of May ‘68 from the point of view of our neighborhood. She was there for all of it and she kept a journal, and she wrote day-by-day about exactly what was going on. Our story is really intended as a kind of homage to her.”
Anderson recalls, “I went to a party in Paris about 20 years ago at an old nightclub called Castel. I was seated next to a small, I thought, slightly birdlike man with a white beard. He wore blue-tinted sunglasses. He didn’t speak much English, and I didn’t speak much French. But we shared a warmly abstract, blurry conversation through dinner, and then someone appeared over his shoulder and whispered something to him, and he wandered over to a Yamaha keyboard and turned it on and started playing a song, and at the chorus the entire nightclub exploded in unison singing along with him — and I realized the kind, birdlike man was a legendary French pop icon. The song was “Aline”, and Christophe died after we made our movie but before we could release it. The duet between him and Jarvis Cocker was not to be. Our character of Tip-Top is an homage to him and Jacques Dutronc and Francoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg and a generation of unforgettable French musical stars unlike those of any other nation.”
Anderson also uses an Arabian Nights-like structure of stories within stories, by way of a play based on the memoirs of a youth who becomes radicalized and deserts the army. While set in the 1960s, it’s impossible not to see similarities to other protests throughout history and especially those happening today, led largely by the nation’s youth. Anderson juxtaposes the perspectives of old and young through Juliette and Lucinda’s characters as they argue over Zeffirelli’s role in the “Chess Board Revolution,” while Lucinda does her best to maintain journalistic neutrality.
The third and perhaps most densely packed section, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” is framed within the recitation of the story by its author Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) on a Dick Cavett/David Susskind-style talk show hosted by Liev Schreiber. Anderson: “Jeffrey’s part is a bit of James Baldwin, quite a bit of A.J. Liebling, a bit of Tennessee Williams in the way he talks and some mixture of all three in the way he writes. There’s a Baldwin story or essay—a memory, really—called “Equal in Paris,” which is about him being arrested and thrown into jail for several days for something he didn’t do: stealing sheets in a hotel. It’s a wonderful piece and it made me start thinking about and served as an inspiration for this story, which is mixed with food, a Liebling specialty.”
“There’s some kind of homage to comic books on every block,” adds Anderson, “there are literally statues of comic book characters, and there are schools and animation studios. The sequence was all animated in Angoulême by people who lived and studied there. In fact, some of the people who worked on the animation were extras in the movie.”
Wes Anderson’s approach to making movies is like no one else
Over the years, Wes Anderson’s films have become increasingly complex, more excitingly varied and alive in the richness of visual and narrative detail packed into every frame.
In The French Dispatch, the visuals might shift suddenly from black and white to color or from widescreen to Academy ratio, subtitles might arrive in any corner of the frame and the emotional register can turn on a dime from comedy to lyricism to the deepest yearning.
“I think Wes’ evolution as an artist has been interesting because with each movie, he keeps pushing himself,” says Dawson. “This is his tenth feature and it’s richer and more complex and more of a tapestry than anything he’s ever done. He really understands how all these pieces fit into a whole, and I think that’s what he’s been able to perfect over the years. There’s a maturity to the work now where he’s able to say so many things at one time.”
The way that he frames his films, they’re like living dioramas,” says Wright. “And in some ways, in this film it feels like the pages of a magazine. But there’s so much vivid detail within the frame and there’s so much attention to not only language and words but also the specificity of composition that each frame is in and of itself a story within the story.”
“When I read the script for The French Dispatch,” remembers Weisblum, “it was clear to me in the first thirty pages that every sentence was an entirely new set. That came directly from animation, where every shot really is its own set and there’s a constant attention to microscopic visual detail. Of course, I immediately spoke to him and said, ‘How do we do that?’”
“It’s an organic process that’s part of our editorial process,” says Weisblum, “not something that happens after the fact. There’s a constant conversation going on with all the collaborators.”
“You can look at any given frame of any film by Wes and immediately know that it’s his,” says Wright as a way of summing up the unique quality of Anderson’s art. “There’s something in his films that I think is connected to a childlike appreciation of being told a story. It’s framed in a kind of heightened way, the way that I think a child begins to view the world, where the colours are slightly richer and more pleasant and the light is slightly heightened, and there’s a kind of presentational quality to it almost as if it’s theatre on film, but at the same time it’s very much a cinematic experience. And all of these things bring out that childlike wonder that lives within all of us around storytelling.”
“I would say that The French Dispatch is a masterpiece from a great filmmaker,” says Adrien Brody of the finished product. “And to have experienced that filmmaker’s evolution on an intimate level has been remarkable. In many ways, it’s like a painter’s evolution, with that kind of complexity and richness. And in every frame, there’s the soul of a true artist.”
“At a certain point, I just decided I’m going to do whatever I want,” says Anderson, “and that if I wanted to do a sequence that’s black and white widescreen hand-held, then that’s what we were going to do. Can we do this part as just a cartoon? Yeah, we can, so I think we will. When I first started doing movies, it was always: ‘Can we do this?’ I feel like I don’t even bother to say that anymore. But of course, it all has to gel and come together, and that’s why it’s important to have such a great team, led by Adam Stockhausen, Milena Canonero (costume designer), Bob Yeoman (DP), Sanjay Sami (key grip and Steadicam operator, Alexandre Desplat (composer).”