Wes Anderson has found the infallible cinematic form in the The New Yorker magazine. His newest film, “The French Dispatch,” released Oct. 22, is based on The New Yorker and the tenure of Harold Ross, who led the magazine from 1925 until his death in 1951. The film is bookended by the death of Arthur Horwitzer Jr., a fictionalized version of Ross played by Bill Murray. Early on, Horwitzer stipulates that the magazine will close with his death, and that it does. But for the final issue of The French Dispatch — the film’s version of The New Yorker — in accordance with Horwitzer’s will, the best published stories are reprinted.
“The French Dispatch” is really a triptych of impossible journalistic prowess. It focuses on three stories — partly inspired by real-life New Yorker pieces — that Horwitzer edited for The French Dispatch. “The Concrete Masterpiece” is a story about an imprisoned artistic madman (Benicio Del Toro) and a slimy art dealer (Adrien Brody), based on “The Days of Duveen” about the conman art dealer Lord Duveen. Tilda Swinton plays the writer, J.K.L. Berensen, a former art collector who experienced the concrete masterpiece herself. “Revisions to a Manifesto” is based on stories stemming from the French student revolutions in May of 1968. Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) becomes romantically entangled with her subject, the student revolutionary Zeferrelli (Timothée Chalamet). Lastly, Jeffrey Wright plays Roebuck Wright, a pseudo-James Baldwin (Baldwin wrote under The New Yorker’s Ross) in “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.” Wright, a food reporter, is sent to interview the chef Nescaffier for a feature, but he is then caught up in a high profile kidnapping and car chase. Each of the film’s stories starts as one thing and becomes another: something Horwitzer, who comically chastises the extraneous word counts of his prolific writers, encourages.
All of Anderson’s many quirks, aestheticisms and faults fit into “The French Dispatch” perfectly. It becomes hard to imagine the movie made in any other way, with any less cutesiness or any less production. The star-studded cast — Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalamet, Saroirse Ronan, Frances McDormand, Benicio Del Toro, Bill Murray and Elisabeth Moss, to name a few — is reminiscent of the movie’s subject. The masthead of The New Yorker often feels like a rolodex of the who’s who in literary journalism. The perfectly crafted, color-coordinated sets recall the infamous New Yorker illustration style. Even the disjointed switches from black and white to color, or from film to animation, echo the shock of reading about a horrific murder in the magazine’s pages and then, in the next paragraph, encountering a comic about a giraffe in a doctor’s office.
But Anderson’s greatest accomplishment feels like a cheat. Because he picked the ephemeral, interdisciplinary cultural publication of The New Yorker as a subject, he could do whatever he wanted, just like the magazine and its writers. Though it is a story about journalism, it is more a sampling of various mediums: an exposition of the literary world’s trappings.
Like The New Yorker, every story seems to somehow displace itself into another one. “The Concrete Masterpiece” is told through Berensen in a lecture hall. “Revisions to a Manifesto” drops the audience into Krementz’s reportage as she colludes with her supposedly journalistic subjects. “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” is told through Wright in an interview (with Liev Schrieber, of course) using a blend of filmic, narrated and animated flashbacks.
Usually, The New Yorker’s reporting is a window into the author’s life, in some way or another. At least, that is the side of the magazine that Anderson depicts, and it is surely the publication’s most parodic characteristic. In two of the three stories, the reporter writes about sleeping with the subject. Wright ends his piece with his own monologue about fitting in. Between the lines, Krementz often laments about her own loneliness, especially as a female writer.
Because the stories are being told through the reporter, and because these reporters are eccentric Anderson creations, the stories are subsumed by the individual. This is not a flaw — those who read and love The New Yorker (Anderson, unsurprisingly, considers himself a big fan) do not complain when the writer pauses to talk about their own feelings. At least, those who do complain do not subscribe. The magazine is, notably, not The New York Times. It has no duty to tell everything in any logical order. It really has no duty to tell you anything important at all. Anderson exploits the creative liberties of New Yorker journalism to our benefit, and surely to his.
Horwitzer’s motto, oft-repeated throughout the film as he edits his unruly writers’ work, is “just make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.” Anderson, in all of his films and most certainly in “The French Dispatch,” already adheres to this mantra. If his eclectic cinematic style had to be confined to one word, “purposeful” would do. The publication is located in the fictional Ennui-sur-Blase, or Boredom upon Apathy, a fitting title for the writers who are all, to extreme degrees, aloof geniuses who enter violent conflicts with frowns and yawns. The score, released prior to the film’s opening in cinemas, is plentiful in irreverent compositions that fit into this fictional world. Even Chalamet, a current teenage heartthrob, is cast as a political teenage heartthrob in the film. There will be no eye twitching here, no realistic sigh or unplanned hair tuck. Every movement serves to create Anderson’s world, every action constructs the ground upon which the actor stands. Without purpose, “The French Dispatch” would fall apart. So, too, would The New Yorker.
After the last story, “The Private Dining Room,” is recounted, Horwitzer reads over the final write-up in his office. He’s disappointed to hear that the original interview subject, Chef Nescaffier, is only quoted once. Wright responds with an anecdote. The genius chef, who almost fatally poisons himself, had never tasted, in all his years, anything like poison. In the hospital bed, he murmurs to Wright: “Thinking something is missing. Missing what’s left behind.” Horwitzer tells Wright to include the quote.
Anderson’s greatest feat is replicating this impression; the audience also is left feeling as if there is something missing in “The French Dispatch.” It is probably the fact that The New Yorker, and any other publication like it, is not the creative boxing ring the film portrays it as. Covered in ads, resistant to change, obsessed with its own image and helplessly whimsical, modern literary publications don’t often feel as real, as necessary, as the fictional French Dispatch. But still, we find ourselves missing exactly what we chastise. I need to read about TikTok’s obsession with Americancore aesthetic as much as I need to hear about Herbsaint Sazerac’s (Owen Wilson) foray through a French town. But I want to read both!
Anderson’s romantic vision of journalism feels a bit too generalizing: there is an important distinction between Berensen’s drunken lecture and wartime reporters. But this type of journalism — The New Yorker, creative nonfiction, literary essayage that has become especially popular in the years since Anderson began his film career — deserves a little aesthetically-pleasing pat on the back. Like the film, that twee type of writing is lovely. Just lovely.