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- This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of Sight and Sound.
If there’s one kind of film that calls out to me from the listings, it’s a movie about journalists. You may consider this rank narcissism, but I devour films about my own profession, or rather, the sexier version that appears on screen. Whether venal (Ace in the Hole, 1951) or virtuous (All the President’s Men, 1976), movie journalists brandish their bravado. They run towards the fire while cracking wise, reeling from an office affair and containing a whisky hangover. Sadly, in all my years of flatplans and pull quotes, phone interviews and deadlines, not once have I toppled a corrupt regime at City Hall or found myself sloping off to a liquid lunch with Cary Grant. Who could blame me for living my career vicariously through the movies? My desk life may better resemble Melissa McCarthy’s copy-editing shifts in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) but who wouldn’t rather be Bette Davis in Front Page Woman (1935) or Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome (1979)?
So no, procedural realism is not always what I crave in a journalism movie. Which means I was thrilled to hear that Wes Anderson was working on one. Pastiche is so deeply embedded in Anderson’s work that we should read it as his own form of sincerity – even when, in this case, there are fine threads tethering his film to checkable fact. The periodical featured in The French Dispatch is the New Yorker in all but name and location, and its staff are cartoon sketches of revered writers including Mavis Gallant and James Baldwin. The film takes place in the mid-1970s in a heavily fictionalised Paris, all bicycles and baguettes, cobbles and cats, which bears more than a whiff of garlicky stereotyping – another one of those geographical caricatures that mottle Anderson’s work. A waggish sub editor would caption this city Banal-sur-Cliché, but instead Anderson adopts a pose of Gallic hauteur and uses the moniker Ennui-sur-Blasé – a name that veritably shrugs. It’s an affectionate creation regardless and there is no doubt that the filmmaker is besotted with his whimsical city, which is filtered through the artistry of his own distinctive palette, classic French cinema, especially Jacques Tati, and decades of prettified Hollywood depictions of Paris.
A couple of issues back, Sight and Sound editor-in-chief Mike Williams noted that The French Dispatch is accurate in one particular regard: the tiny pages tacked to a board in editorial meetings. And there are several familiar snapshots of the production process in the film: blue pencil corrections on a typed galley, totting up expenses, even the magazine rolling off the presses. For me, however, it is Anderson’s emphasis is on product, not process, that makes it an unusual press picture – one that replicates the experience of the reader, not the writers.
The visuals are inspired by, and sometimes facsimiles of, the print publication. We see page layouts on screen and captions superimposed. Images are cropped and reframed as the aspect ratio switches, appearing variously in black and white or colour, and sometimes sharing the screen with one another, as if laid out on a double-page spread. There are even cartoons, because the film is a portmanteau, organised into short and longer stories – an obituary, a travel guide and three features – delineated on a contents page. Jeffrey Wright’s Roebuck claims to have a “typographic memory” for published text, so there is no lapse into casual dialogue: only polished sentences will do. Sometimes, it feels as if we are experiencing a collective “typographic memory”. The student protesters that Frances McDormand’s Lucinda reports on are caricatured as brats (slogan: “The children are grumpy”) and I was unsure whether this was a gag or meant to suggest an out-of-touch hack misinterpreting and so misreporting the countrywide protests of May 1968.
With its excesses of whimsy and affectation, Dispatch has been criticised as a self-parodic retreat into Anderson’s signature aesthetic. A sign in the editor’s office commands “no crying” and it’s doubtful the audience will rebel, as little here delves beneath the surface. I did, however, take some meaningful solace from this flight of fancy.
Aspiring hacks still dream of splash bylines and world-changing investigations, but most now also indulge more nostalgic daydreams. The French Dispatch is a restorative fantasy for a generation of journalists who have seen their trade disparaged while the lineage rates diminish. In Anderson’s impossible world, writers work at their own leisure and for generous remuneration: the fee for a 300-word book review includes an advance on “cost of living”, while Tilda Swinton’s art critic writes in a beachside hotel rather than the office and the Dispatch foots the bill. Fact-checkers’ awkward queries are dismissed and reporters are given luxurious periods in which to work on their manuscripts. When they inevitably file seven times as many words as have been commissioned, the editor doesn’t order a rewrite but instead barks: “Just move the masthead and cut a few ads.” Staffers on even the most prestigious publications would gasp.
Each workplace malady has its cure, especially in my shadow career on screen. A blast of Kay Thompson’s fashion editor singing “Think Pink!” in Funny Face (1957) counteracts the chilling vision of Anna Wintour removing page after page of Grace Coddington’s lavish photoshoots from Vogue in The September Issue (2009). Similarly, repeat viewings of this film may just quell a 21st-century journalist’s pangs as they consider their occupational hazards. The French Dispatch’s depiction of deluxe journalism does not represent our trade’s noblest aspirations, but who among the underpaid and inky-fingered brigade does not covet a voyage to the distant realm known as Richesse-sur-Prestige?
The French Dispatch pens a lavishly Andersonian love letter to journalism
Wes Anderson’s much mythologised, obsessively symmetrical style washes over every frame of this dense, five-part anthology, which features a typically star-studded cast.
By Leigh Singer