The Observer

An American in an American Paris

As the third season of the hit series Emily in Paris lands on Netflix, our columnist has one question for Hollywood: Why do clichés about France live on?
Lily Collins in Emily in Paris. © Stéphanie Branchu/Netflix

Good Americans go to Paris; bad ones make movies about it. That paraphrase of Oscar Wilde sums up many people’s feelings – including my own – concerning yet another starry-eyed, sugar-coated crock about the City of Light: Emily in Paris, which launched on Netflix in October 2020. Over the decades, the U.S. media and entertainment industry has committed countless sins of misjudgment in its depictions of France, but this production has stirred an unusual amount of commentary, not only from native Parisians (“Emily’s attic studio is four times the size of my two-bedroom apartment,” or “She’s never taken Metro Line 13 during rush hour”) but also from foreign journalists – some of them American – who have a more accurate, warts-and-all appreciation of the French capital. “What have the Parisians done to deserve this?” seems to be the consensus view.

Of course, Netflix’s confection is just the latest bonbon in a sickly-sweet assortment. As with many shows and movies featuring Paris, it’s often better to forget the flimsy plot and cardboard characters and to concentrate on the scenery – especially since it rarely rains (pace Woody Allen), the traffic isn’t snarled for miles, the sidewalks are squeaky clean, and all the graffiti has been Photoshopped away. These phantasmagoric depictions, while flattering, are usually inaccurate and always irritating. Hence the firestorm of criticism, which is almost unanimous. “What’s French for ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’?” Taking a more charitable view, one (French) commentator resorted to the classics, suggesting that the scriptwriter’s aim might have been to deliberately exaggerate and create impossible situations for comic effect, just like Molière (though which play – Les Précieuses ridicules, perhaps? – was not specified).

To be fair, Emily seems familiar, and sometimes witty, to many American viewers precisely because it is American, not French, and therefore exists in another dimension. It keeps alive a dreamworld that probably came into being during the 1918-1939 interbellum, when American-born artists and writers migrated to Paris in search of inspiration. The members of this Lost Generation – so-called because their values were at odds with the post-World War I context around them – wrote, painted, argued, published, drank, and generally lived a bohemian lifestyle they were unable to find back home. Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, and John Dos Passos, among others, contributed to the myth that centered on Montparnasse, an area of the Left Bank renowned at the time for cheap cafés and lodgings. In the first half of the 1920s, the number of Americans in Paris increased five-fold to around 30,000. They rubbed shoulders with then-unknown European luminaries like Modigliani, Picasso, and Dalí. But Paris was not just about struggling artists. Wealthy socialites such as Peggy Guggenheim and Harry Crosby were also drawn by the city’s creative effervescence.

Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in An American in Paris (1951). © Everett Collection
Lily Collins and Willam Abadie in Emily in Paris (2020). © Carole Bethuel/Netflix

The onset of World War II spelled the end of the Montparno myth, but many Americans who crossed the Atlantic during the war chose to stay on in Europe, especially Paris. By then familiar to U.S. moviegoers, the city became the ideally picturesque backdrop, with Gene Kelly dancing across Place de la Concorde (An American in Paris), Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn squabbling on the Champs-Elysées (Funny Face), and Leslie Caron dining at Maxim’s (Gigi). These and a legion of other movies created a visual and aural tradition that has been perpetuated with varying degrees of authenticity or good taste – think Moulin Rouge, The Da Vinci Code, and even Mission: Impossible – Fallout. (I make special allowance for Disney’s Ratatouille, especially because it skewers a particularly annoying food critic.) Even a half-decent movie like Before Sunset can’t quite avoid a cliché or three. Fictional depictions of many other cities manage, on the whole, to achieve a fair degree of realism. But not Paris.

So, if you’re a naïve American movie buff heading to our city to indulge in soul-searching in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, pursue artistic aspirations in Montmartre, or swoon over a spectacular sunset on the Seine, you’ll quickly realize the error of your ways – particularly if you rely on an app to communicate with the locals instead of learning a smattering of French. Don’t ask a Parigot for directions unless you want to get lost. Don’t seek insights from a friendly taxi driver. If you’re a woman, don’t try to navigate the city’s cobbled streets in designer heels à la Emily, or your fall from grace will be spectacular and painful. And whoever you are, never – I repeat, NEVER – wear a beret!

On a more mundane level, it’s no longer possible to vivre d’amour et d’eau fraîche (live on love alone) in Paris. Rents are sky-high, food is expensive – even a glass of vin rouge in a trendy bar can set you back a mint. Sad but true, the shabby-yet-homely cafés frequented by deep-thinking bohemians who eat and drink on credit are a figment of a foreign screenwriter’s imagination. What today’s twentysomething Parisian needs is not a notebook or sketchpad but a healthy bank balance.

Yet another problem with these Paris-focused American movies is that they rarely stray beyond beguiling but familiar locations like Montmartre, the Latin Quarter, or the Champs-Elysées. Which is a shame, because the cityscape is so varied. On the plus side, however, that omission means that Emily in Paris fans wanting to follow in their heroine’s Louboutin-shod footsteps are unlikely to discover the real Paris. Take my own neighborhood, Belleville, in the northeast of the city. It is no picture-postcard setting (one jejune American fashion writer who ventured beyond the metro station called it “edgy”), and the only fictional portrayals nowadays involve drug dealers and gangbangers. Even so, it’s in districts like this, not the uppity eighth or swanky sixteenth arrondissements, that most Parisians live, work, play, and eat. Areas that are definitely not on the American tourist trail, thank heavens!

To continue this conversation on American clichés about France, turn to the latest episode of the FrancoFiles podcast, produced by the French Embassy in the United States. The American creator of Emily in Paris, Darren Star, and French actor William Abadie look back on the origins of the series and discuss how they reacted to the pushbacks that followed the first season. “It’s not a documentary about France and it’s not a documentary about Americans,” says Darren Star. “It is about a girl who comes to France and doesn’t speak French, and a lot of people are horrified by that, and they get angry about it. And so that’s a problem. Emily isn’t a shining example of an American tourist in France!”

Article published in the December 2020 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.