Monotype’s Marie Boulanger on the nostalgic power of typography in The French Dispatch

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Wes Anderson’s jaw-dropping films are such visual feasts that it can be easy for the details to pass viewers by. The French dispatch is no exception. The 2021 romantic comedy about the death of a French magazine editor set in the fictional town of Ennui-Sur-Blasé has won over audiences and critics alike thanks to the director’s talent for whimsical storytelling. Yet there is a hidden language of typography bubbling beneath the surface.

That won’t surprise Wes Anderson fans, who know his attention to detail all too well. But while publications such as The New Yorker have often been touted as huge influences on The French Dispatch, the typographic references found in the film run deep and tap into the broader application of typography in general.

At once nostalgic, artistic and practically a character unto itself, The French Dispatch’s typefaces and letterforms also offer a window into the country’s rich history. To help unpack all of the film’s typographic splendor and reveal what we can learn from it, Creative Boom caught up with typography expert Marie Boulanger to learn more.



The French Dispatch movie poster. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All rights reserved

What differentiates the typography of The French Dispatch from other Wes Anderson films?

I’m just speaking for myself, but I recently rewatched all of his films in chronological order. You can see typography becoming an increasingly important component over time – it’s quite fascinating. In later films like Isle of Dogs and The French Dispatch, he almost becomes his own character rather than a visual or narrative flourish. Especially in a story about writers and publishing, every book, every page, every sign, every poster.

Even thinking of the three stories contained in the film, graphics and typography are really at the heart of each: exhibition posters, protest signs and even menus. You gather a lot of key information just through certain objects on the board, as well as emotional nuances: humor, joy, sadness. With so much of the storytelling depending on typography, a high level of detail is to be expected.

The French Dispatch.  Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.  © 2021 20th Century Studios All rights reserved



The French Dispatch. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All rights reserved

Bill Murray and Pablo Pauly in the film THE FRENCH SEND.  Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.  © 2021 20th Century Studios All rights reserved



Bill Murray and Pablo Pauly in the film THE FRENCH SEND. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All rights reserved

Can a typeface be inherently nostalgic, or does it depend on the context?

In the film, there is an interesting sequence where Herbsaint Sazerac, one of the screenwriters, walks around the town of Ennui, comparing past and present versions of locations across the city, simultaneously showing that nothing and everything has exchange.

Much of the type we use is strongly tied to the past; letterforms were invented hundreds of years ago. Even relatively contemporary typefaces (like, say, geometric sans) were popularized about a century ago. That’s long enough for most people to have some sort of nostalgic connection to them. But typography is not immune to innovation and letters do not live in a vacuum. Iconic typefaces are getting a major facelift to suit new uses, like Futura Now in 2018 and Helvetica Now Variable in 2021. Do you get nostalgic if you use Helvetica Now Variable in a piece of motion design? You tell me.

Helvetica Now Variable, image courtesy of Monotype



Helvetica Now Variable, image courtesy of Monotype

Futura Now, image courtesy of Monotype



Futura Now, image courtesy of Monotype

What do you think are the most notable examples of nostalgic typefaces in film?

The uses of typography that immediately struck me are those that are closely linked to French culture. At first I was surprised to see Gill Sans where I would have expected cult French fonts like Banco, Mistral, Peignot. Still, I noticed many wonderful details that made me think about what nostalgia really is.

The series of handwritten posters based on the May 68 riots are a notable reminder. The real posters of the demonstrations are undoubtedly one of the most famous lettering of contemporary France; the slogans of the movement are still famous thanks to these posters. The lettering style and color scheme was very similar to the original, but the copy and slogans have a softer, more teenage quality.

In the opening scene, a waiter carries a tray with several items, including a pack of cigarettes from the fictional Gaullistes brand, made from Gauloises cigarettes. The Gauloises packaging is iconic in France, with its original logo drawn by Marcel Jacno, one of the greatest designers of the 1960s. There is a clever political pun here (the Gaullists were supporters of Charles de Gaulle), but I think that says a lot about the film’s stance on nostalgia. It goes beyond pastiche. It gives you real nostalgia, an idealized, dreamlike version of a past reality.

Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri in the film L'ENVOI FRANÇAIS.  Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.  © 2021 20th Century Studios All rights reserved



Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri in the film L’ENVOI FRANÇAIS. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All rights reserved

What can other filmmakers learn from The French Dispatch typefaces?

The type is the art. The type is the culture, and like any element of the culture, it is part of the narrative. Sure, some filmmakers may be more sensitive to color, music, or dialogue, but text is more than just text on a screen. Yes, a specific typeface can recall a time and place, but it can do so much more. There is endless depth in typographic detail and not just for aesthetics.

What inspirations do you see behind the typographic choices of the film?

I loved the mix of stalwart Wes Anderson favorites with more personalized choices – what a comeback for Futura. There are many specific typographies that recall French culture and the typographic scene in France at the time of the film.

I noticed a lot of shaded fonts (Gill Sans and Umbra mostly), which was a popular style in France from the late 1930s. I thought it was a nod to a typeface published for the first time in 1934 and called Film (also by Marcel Jacno), specially designed for cinema, posters and titling. This typeface, alongside many other classics from the 1950s and 1960s, was released by the French foundry Deberny & Peignot. Funnily enough, they were one of the only foundries to acquire the rights to Futura and release a French-market version called Europe, so I guess that’s a good time for inspiration on a loop.

Can you walk us through the different ways fonts achieve the desired effect in the movie?

It’s rare to see a film where typography plays such an important role in the storytelling. I think there are two main ways to achieve this: by anchoring the events of the film in a time and place (real or fictional) and by using the cultural dimension of type and lettering to add additional meaning.

I’ve already talked a bit about 1960s France, but there are other ways fonts cement what’s happening on screen. An interesting moment that comes to mind is the use of Futura on Moses’ display cards (and, more generally, the branding of the Cadazio Gallery). This is in stark contrast to the scribble of Moses, and you understand that it is being fabricated into this internationally renowned artist: using Futura gives it that authority and credibility instantly. I don’t think it’s just an aesthetic obsession, and in this case, it makes total typographical sense to me.

THE FRENCH EXPEDITION.  Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.  © 2021 20th Century Studios All rights reserved



THE FRENCH EXPEDITION. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All rights reserved

What is your favorite typography in the film, and why?

There are a lot of them, but I’ll be honest here and try to remember how I felt the first time I saw the movie. It’s oddly specific, but on the third floor there are a lot of police, and you get a glimpse of their uniforms. The word Font is spelled out using a heavily shaded typeface, and it’s such a great way to add depth to footage shot in black and white. I remember noticing it among many other pieces. Also, an honorable mention to the La Brique Rouge neon sign in Ennui-Sur-Blasé because the neon typography is always a pleasure.

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