The French Dispatch as Eschatological Coloring Book

Josh Larsen

Is The French Dispatch filmed in color or black and white? How you answer might say something about your theological disposition.

The latest carefully crafted comic curio from director Wes Anderson (Isle of Dogs, The Grand Budapest Hotel), The French Dispatch is centered around the magazine of the title, a New Yorker-style American periodical published from a fictional, mid-century French city. In the style of an anthology movie, we witness three of the magazine’s stories as they are reported, written, and published, all under the auspices of founding editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Anderson regular Bill Murray).

In his lovely introductory essay to The Wes Anderson Collection, novelist Michael Chabon describes how the likes of The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore comically lament the way things have fallen apart for their characters because of personal foibles of all kinds, then proceed to innocently wonder if “perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.” For Christians, this should resonate with our experience living in a world that was created good, broken by sin, redeemed by Christ—and is now in the process of being restored, until the new creation fully arrives. The French Dispatch captures our current in-between state—what theologians call the “already, but not yet"—in an exhilaratingly inventive way: by interrupting its monochromatic visual scheme (our present age) with bursts of color (the kingdom come).

Consider the first story we see: “The Concrete Masterpiece,” a profile of incarcerated, despondent artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro, whose hangdog face seems stretched beyond its usual, morose measure). As does much of Anderson’s work, this sequence looks at depression square in the eye. Introducing himself to the jail’s arts-and-crafts class, Moses laments his tortured psychological state and admits, “I think maybe it’s gonna be a suicide.” Yet the movie—particularly in the person of Simone (Lea Seydoux), the prison guard who serves as his willing model and muse—sees something more hopeful. Notice the way, after a modeling and painting session, she flips the light switch in the room and the screen goes from severe black and white to soft pastels. Or another moment when Moses, looking up at the dark, mottled ceiling of the prison, is struck with inspiration; instantly, similar hues appear overhead. When the finished piece—“Simone, Naked, Cell Block J. Hobby Room”—is later presented by an art dealer (Adrien Brody), the scene begins in monochrome until the cloth that’s covering the painting is pulled away. Anderson cuts—you guessed it—to the painting in all its full-color glory. (Real-life artist Sandro Kopp created the artwork for the film.)

The French Dispatch captures our current in-between state — what theologians call the “already, but not yet."

In the second story, “Revisions to a Manifesto,” we follow a student revolt led by Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet), a callow chess player involved in romantic relationships with both the older Dispatch correspondent profiling him (Frances McDormand) and a fellow student (Lyna Khoudri). This segment also primarily takes place in black-and-white—including a protest that turns violent—but its eruptions of color prove telling. At one point, Chalamet and Khoudri’s characters share a scooter ride that seems to be taking place in the stratosphere, throbbing reds and blues evoking a particularly Parisian play on the Northern Lights. With all the narrative layers and intricate timelines going on it was hard for me to tell (even after two viewings), but I believe this moment might have only taken place in Zeffirelli’s head. Or maybe that’s the interpretation I prefer because it resonates with the fantastical, visionary nature of Christian hope—hope for what is not seen.

The final story, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” is perhaps the most eschatologically moving vision of the world to come, if a bit more subtle in its use of color. There is the brilliant blue flash of Saoirse Ronan’s eyes when she peers—while playing a dancer—through a screen in an otherwise dark door. Otherwise, this story about Nescaffier (Stephen Park), a renowned chef employed by the local police department, underplays the color-palette technique. You may not immediately notice, for instance, that during one split-screen sequence, the left hand of the frame—depicting the delicious meal Nescaffier has prepared for the commissioner—is in color, while the right side—laying out the commissioner’s plans for a rescue operation in a kidnapping case—is in black and white.

Doesn’t that, too, have theological resonance: color to evoke the great banquet that awaits us and starkness to evoke the criminality we must deal with in a sinful world? In The French Dispatch, we’re continually aware of these two realities. And we’re asked: how do we see the state of things? Is our disposition one of despair: shoddy ceilings, smoky tear gas, crime? Or, even as we recognize such brokenness, can we also hold onto glimmers of the new creation that are visible in the here and now? The beauty of Wes Anderson’s films is the way they delicately hold that tension. They honor our mournfulness—recognize the truth of it—but they’re not content to leave us wallowing there. Each explosion of color in The French Dispatch is an aesthetic epiphany and, potentially, a twinkling of spiritual transcendence.

There's another moment in “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” that speaks to this idea, though it involves a bit of dialogue more than cinematography. (Spoiler ahead.) That rescue operation required, for reasons I won’t get into, Nescaffier to poison a dish that is served to the kidnappers. Unfortunately, the criminals force him to eat it first. Later, after barely surviving the meal, he says that although consuming the dish caused great pain, it also gave him the experience of tasting something completely unique, which he describes, with wonder, as “a new flavor.” In other words, pleasure that miraculously survived—indeed, was born out of—poison. The phrase “a new creation” has become so commonplace in some Christian circles that perhaps it has lost some of its potency. Maybe we should think of restoration—both the “already” and “not yet” varieties—as a new flavor, instead.

Topics: Movies