Wes Anderson’s Dream of France, and the Paris I Remember
PARIS — At the premiere on Sunday before the release of his latest movie, “The French Dispatch,” Wes Anderson stood onstage in a rumpled …
PARIS — At the premiere on Sunday before the release of his latest movie, “The French Dispatch,” Wes Anderson stood onstage in a rumpled, brownish suit and told the crowd packed into a Champs-Élysées theater, “I have a French air about me.” He had, he said, “spent my whole life feeling I am in a French movie.”
Now this artful Texan and sometime Parisian with a tousled Left-Bank look has made a film so French that not a Gallic cliché is omitted. The trees are pollarded, the shutters are largely drawn, the police tend toward Inspector Clouseau look-alikes. The streets of the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé — roughly translated as Boredom-on-the-World-Weary — are dotted with rats beneath steeply pitched zinc roofs, and, of course, the talk is of love and art and gastronomic pleasure.
Ennui (a word that conveys a peculiarly French sense of tedium mixed with spleen) is home to The French Dispatch, an English-language magazine whose avowed inspiration is The New Yorker. In Anderson’s telling, the fictional publication existed between 1925 and 1975 under the editorship of a certain Arthur Howitzer, Jr., who keeps as close an eye on his journalists’ expense reports as on any redundant phrase in their copy. Howitzer is loosely modeled on Harold Ross and William Shawn, the co-founder and longtime editor of the magazine that “The French Dispatch” relocates from Manhattan.
The movie, however, is scarcely about journalism, apart from the occasional musing of a reporter named Lucinda Krementz (played by Frances McDormand and inspired by Mavis Gallant and Lillian Ross) who covers a mock-up of the May 1968 student uprising. “I should maintain journalistic neutrality,” she says. “If it exists.”
Rather, Anderson’s nostalgia-laced film is about an old subject: the American writer in Paris. It evokes how French sensuality and style and beauty and surly realism — so completely distinct from can-do American optimism and the functional drabness of Main Street U.S.A. — can facilitate artistic reinvention and afford the space to dream.
I arrived in Paris in 1975, just as The French Dispatch was ending its life, and later began work for a fortnightly American magazine called The Paris Metro, whose brief but passionate life extended from 1976 to 1978. The tone was more Village Voice than The French Dispatch, and it was a thrilling way to start in journalism. I explored the redevelopment of the Les Halles wholesale food market — then a gaping hole in the center of the city — and wrote about a suburban warehouse disco that was drawing a chic crowd all the way from St. Germain-des-Prés.
The whiff of garlic, sauvignon blanc and Gauloises was still strong on the early-morning subway and there was still a horse butcher on every other block. At The Paris Metro, we all thought we were living a charmed life, however straitened our individual circumstances might be. Heck, Parisians, whatever their sophistication, needed tough, raw American journalism to see their city and culture anew. The magazine was a popular success that might have benefited from Howitzer’s attention to expense accounts.
I discovered that, despite appearances, I was born an outsider. France was liberating, just as the movies of Godard, Renoir, Truffaut and Varda clearly were for Anderson. They were guides to unimagined possibility, so different in pacing and theme and structure from much of Hollywood.
“I have stolen many things from your cinema,” Anderson told the Paris audience at the premiere.
Theft may be a tribute, just as cultural difference may be a stimulant. The French phrase “Bof, c’est normal” — “bof” is an untranslatable French verbal shrug — fascinated me, so, at The Paris Metro, I wrote about the French reluctance to be shocked by any human antics, all waved away as “normal.” A short story called “A Slit Skirt” about a vagrant exploring the underside of Paris found its way into print but is probably best forgotten. Still, it reflected a young man’s urge to create, with Paris as the perfect backdrop.
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.”
“I don’t love you,” she says.
That French realism never goes away.
I was reminded of the scene in Godard’s “La Chinoise,” in which two young Maoist revolutionaries — these are students with real heft and serious beliefs — are also lovers. A scene consists of the young man saying “Je t’aime” and the young woman saying “Je ne t’aime plus.” Some things just sound better in French, but, OK, if you insist on a translation: “I love you,” “I no longer love you.”
Yes, Anderson has stolen things, but immersed in the cornucopia of France, how could he or any other American artist do otherwise?