If good cheap food and wine were everywhere in those late ’70s days, beauty also overflowed: the wide bright sky on the banks of the Seine, the low-slung bridges with their subtle fulcrums, the golden domes and verdigris statuary, the streets that beckoned and the boulevards that summoned, the overflowing markets and the islands pointing their prows at the river. Paris seemed unreasonably generous.
This French generosity is alluded to in “The French Dispatch” with a wistful longing by Roebuck Wright (played by Jeffrey Wright and loosely modeled on James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling), who appears in the fourth and last of the short episodes that make up the movie. He started, as he tells Howitzer, in “fires and murders,” but has moved on to the intrigues of gastronomy. He embarks on an investigation of the table of the chief of the municipal police, whose chef, Mr. Nescaffier (Steve Park), has earned a certain renown with his Blasé city park pigeon hash, among other delicacies.
Journalism can be lonely, but Wright describes how invariably, on some French street, he would find “a table set for me” with its bottle of wine — “my solitary feast, my comrade.” France has modernized, of course, but it has also resisted the brand-obsessed homogenization of Anglophone countries. The comfort of that table, and the solicitous service tended to it, remain something accessible across France, as distinct as the unctuous yet mineral perfection of a Gillardeau oyster.
Nescaffier, the chef, is poisoned as the police chief tries to free his kidnapped son. On his recovery, in a wonderful scene, he describes with rapture the flavor of the toxic salts in the radishes — milky, peppery, spicy, not entirely unpleasant. “A new flavor! A rare thing at my age!” he explains, with corpses strewn about.
Whether the highly stylized, risibly mannered goings-on in Ennui-sur-Blasé are a mocking pastiche of what Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin and countless others found in the movable feast of France, or a Francophile director’s loving paean to that tradition, is one of those riddles that Anderson likes to play with. “I offer the film to France with admiration and respect and a little envy,” he said. Perhaps that was a clue.
France clearly has an emotional hold on the director. It was the French epicure Brillat-Savarin who noted: “I have drawn the following inference, that the limits of pleasure are as yet neither known nor fixed.” In food, as in love. When, in the second story of the movie, the imprisoned painter Moses Rosenthaler (played by Benicio del Toro) makes love to his prison guard and model, identified only as Simone (Léa Seydoux), he murmurs to her “I love you.”