Let them have soufflé: in defense of Emily in Paris
Netflix’s new series Emily in Paris has stirred up a veritable storm in a Ladurée teacup since it dropped on October 2. But not all of the criticism is warranted.
For my part, I can’t say that the polémique that Emily has left in her wake has surprised me. As I wrote last month, the cliché police were on notice and the memes were being readied as soon as the trailer hit Twitter on 1 September.
But the outrage against the show — which, as one Twitter user pointed out, has become a genre in itself — is as over the top as some of the Emily’s outfits. And that’s saying a lot.
People are angry about the way the French are portrayed. People are angry about the way Americans are portrayed (though none more so than Americans in Paris themselves). People are angry about the berets. The size of Emily’s chambre de bonne. The improbably handsome men and the speed at which Emily beds them. The rate at which she kicks career goals and gains Instagram followers. The price of roses. The names of the pastries (as everyone knows, you don’t say “chocolatine” in Paris, you say “pain au chocolat”).
Bref, people are leaving no glistening cobblestone unturned in their quest to fact check the show against the reality of life in Paris.
“Où est le truth?!” demands one critic; another lambasts the series for not showing bins, cars or rubbish on the streets and, bafflingly, for not showing people wearing masks. (The show was shot in 2019, as if there were any doubt).
More thoughtful reviewers have lamented the missed opportunities and underdevelopment of Emily’s character arc. Another made a Derrida reference in closing. With respect, I think that even they may be overthinking it juste un petit peu.
And ironically, I have no doubt that all of the frenzied indignation has only served to generate more buzz and views for the show, in a sort of diabolical marketing coup that Emily herself could have concocted.
Sure, it’s extremely silly. Some of the costumes are ridiculous (I can’t single out any one in particular, but I have an enduring memory of uncomfortable-looking see-through plastic clothes), though arguably no more ridiculous than some of Carrie Bradshaw’s more memorable outfits. (And certainly no more ridiculous than some of the outfits I’ve seen around the streets of Paris, especially around the time of Fashion Week.)
It leans so far into the clichés and caricatures that it does, at times, tumble — knowingly, I suspect — into the absurd. A perfect example is the eccentric designer seeking solace in cracking the top of multiple crème brûlées, which was one of the most ridiculous — and my personal favourite — moments of the series.
Emily riding on Gabriel’s lap on the way to the countryside is another scene that needs to be taken with a comical grain of salt (allô les gendarmes ?), as does the moment that Emily short-circuits her entire neighborhood with a vibrator. (Thank you to the particularly astute internaute who pointed out that such a device would not have high enough voltage to do this….DERR).
Oui, the dialogue is clunky at times, the raunchy jokes heavy-handed and some of the faux pas unnecessarily forced (intending to refer to jam as a “preserve” seems far-fetched even to me, and I am the queen of misusing French words).
But all in all, it’s a frothy, fun rom-com. And it doesn’t hold itself out to anything more. You only need to watch the trailer to see the eight key words: “from the creator of Sex and the City.” That alone should be enough to set your brow low, put on a jaunty beret and let the frivolity wash over you like a traditional Parisian champagne shower.
People who go into Emily in Paris expecting anything more than a “fluffy, charming cliché soufflé” (as one reviewer so eloquently described it) are, quite frankly, setting themselves up for disappointment.
It’s like watching an episode of Suits to prepare for your first day of work in a law firm. Or Orange is the New Black to prepare to go to prison. Or Get Hard to prepare for preparing someone to go to prison.
Quite simply, you need to take it au second degré, as the French would say. In other words, you can’t take it — or yourself — too seriously. (The second degré — literally, the “second degree” — is about as close as the French come to self-deprecation. Except that more often than not it’s someone else making fun of you and you are expected to show your sense of humour by seeing the funny side. It’s a phrase that could come in handy for Emily the next time she unwittingly offends a colleague, client or other sensitive soul.)
And, as I predicted, some of the clichés and storylines do ring true. I do know of people whose extra-marital affairs are widely-known secrets (François Mitterand, anyone? Or just about any former President in recent history for that matter…). And I do know women who insist on wearing stiletto heels around the town (one of my friends even insisted on doing this on work days during lockdown.)
But for me, at a time when I’m having far many more “WTF am I doing in Paris?” moments than “Pinch me I’m in Paris!” moments, it turned out that Emily in Paris was exactly the hit of nostalgia that I needed to escape from, well … Paris. Or at least from COVID-era Paris.
It took me back to my starry-eyed initial days in this city. Early during my time here, I spent a year living in a fifth floor apartment in the 5th arrondisement not unlike Emily’s, with a view over the Arènes de Lutece. (And yes, contrary to what many of the nitpickers are saying, in many buildings you can find reconverted chambres de bonne on the fifth floor; the low ceilings are a giveaway that Emily’s apartment wasn’t an appartement bourgeois. Finally, my years spent fruitlessly searching the Parisian property market and learning the lingo are paying off.)
It took me back to those early days when you don’t have any friends and you make fast ones with other expats. Or just about anyone who will have you, really. (My favourite example is some friends of mine who famously met in a minimart in the Marais while buying bananas at 2am after a night out.) And believe it or not, I myself recently made a friend at Palais Royal, as Emily does (which is not that surprising given that I’m there every other day, but still).
And let’s face it, we’ve all had that moment, even now, of leaning out an open taxi window, gazing at the city in awe. (Only now, we do it partly out of awe and partly because we fear the driver might have COVID).
I also got a kick out of recognizing the various locations where the show was filmed. For example, the “Influencer” event is set in my old office building and the Savoir office is on a square a few blocks from my apartment. (And, in another coup for Emily, it is now destined to become a favourite spot for Instagrammer photo shoots…).
While watching the show I realized I had even inadvertently walked through the set. One day last Summer, my husband and I saw a new café in the arcades of the Palais Royal (on the non-Kitsuné side) and immediately picked up a menu off one of the tables and went to sit down. True to our generation, and got all excited about the prospect of a new place to get overpriced avocado toast in the neighborhood, only to be told by a man wearing a lanyard that it was all a set. (It turned out it is the café that features in some of the debriefing with Mindy scenes).
Is this the “real Paris”? Far from it. As so many critics have pointed out, the producers have taken Paris and put the Los Angeles — or rather Hollywood — filter over the top. But do I want to see streets strewn with litter, cigarette butts and discarded scooters? No, I only have to step outside to see that.
At a time when Paris so desperately needs to re-attract tourists, perpetuating a picture-postcard image of the City of Light where the lamp posts glow, the streets smell of freshly baked croissants and an Edith Piaf-playing accordion player lurks on every corner is not the worst thing that could happen.
Yes, there are things that could be done better. Darren Star and his team of writers could dip into any number of the negative reviews for inspiration. But for the rest of us, let us have our Parisian soufflé. And bring on season deux !
This article was originally published on Medium
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