Back to Basic: Emily in Paris

Lily Collins in Emily in Paris (2020) | Netflix
Netflix

Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

–Karl Marx


It’s 2004. The sixth and final season of
Sex and the City ends in a two-part finale titled after the 1951 Gene Kelly musical—“An American Girl in Paris.” American girl Carrie has left New York mid-winter to live in a hotel with sophisticated artist Aleksandr Petrovsky, a lover whose initial domestic seductions came on like a snow day: plush, insulating, schedule-obliterating. By the time she gets to Paris, the storm has passed; Petrovsky is more or less consumed with preparations for his impending show, leaving Carrie to navigate her new life alone.

The disappointments of dislocation and romantic postponement consolidate in a montage that begins as Petrovsky is called back to the museum. In parting, he remarks again on Carrie’s smoking (it’s Paris, he’d said a minute prior—everyone smokes). Now he adds, it’s sexy! In the key of a glamorous but ironically literal advertisement, Carrie hams back. “It’s killing me!”

In the following vignettes, Carrie does Paris: she double-fists pastry and cigarette, pausing to feed a bit of pâte à choux to the huge, doleful dog seated beside her. She smiles at a passing family whose young daughter promptly smacks her on the head. Distracted, she skids her white pump directly into a pile of shit. She suffers head-shaking, tongue-clucking commentary as she rinses ineffectually at a fountain. She sits on a damp-looking bench by the Seine. A tourist on a boat trains his camcorder on her and waves; gingerly, she waves back, unsure of the nature of his attention or of her value as a spectacle. She must look romantic, sitting there with her small bouquet, her baguette sandwich and polka dot gown. A whimsical vision of “life in Paris” whose appeal, like that of smoke curling from her fingers, is strictly aesthetic.

With Emily in Paris, creator Darren Star revives this formula for cultural discord and feminine disaffection, stretching the charms of two episodes across 10 to produce something longer but no deeper, the points of which aren’t so much refined as facetuned. We might describe such a bald reenactment as an “elaboration,” insofar as robotically careerist marketing specialist Emily (Lily Collins) puts the labor in elaborare.

Work is the subject and the spin of Emily in Paris. Unlike Carrie, who quit her beloved column prior to moving abroad, Emily isn’t simply an American girl, she’s an American professional—or, in the show’s terms, a professional American, as each episode leverages difference in the realm of work (along with sex, narrative closure, and basic counting) as critical to its obsessive, pedantic, diagrammatic ethnography of French-American distinction. From the minute she moves into her old but beautiful apartment building, where historical charm exists at the expense of modern convenience (i.e. no elevator), Emily batters the viewer with facile polarities as specific as success versus punishment and as fundamental as less versus more, until you can’t imagine its generalizations could get any more obtuse, or its revelations any less insightful.

But to paraphrase Emily’s hot neighbor/love interest Gabriel—the city’s “most promising young chef” and an agent of corruption if ever there was one—we didn’t come to Paris, via Netflix, to be good.

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If a fraction of the show’s prodigious discourse is to be believed, we came to eat. More precisely, to binge. To risk indigestion, sedation, tooth rot, regret. According to critics, Emily is frothy; effervescent; a confection; gooey, buttery, sugary; pumpkin spice entertainment; a soufflé (insubstantial); a pain au chocolat (indulgent). In these curiously uniform accounts, indulgence is invoked not to whet the appetite, but to cheapen its fulfillment—to pair any concession of Emily’s superficial merits with an anxious content advisory. “There is a reliable rule when it comes to eating French pastries,” writes Rachel Syme, “one is perfection, two is a disaster.” Then why do bakeries sell by the box? Given the show’s explicit judgment of judgment—of boss Sylvie’s dismissal of Emily’s entire persona as vulgar in its accessibility, for example—it’s perplexing that such critiques, warranted as they are, overwhelmingly rely on and perpetuate a neurotic suspicion of pleasure. God forbid you reach for something whose sweetness fails to educate the palate but still makes you fat.

It’s true that Emily in Paris fails spectacularly on many counts: to resonate with a world transformed by COVID, to remotely reflect the city’s racial diversity—or ensure that Emily’s Chinese best friend Mindy (Ashley Park) can speak passable Mandarin. To go even one episode without ruthlessly reducing an entire national population (France, the U.S., China, take your pick) to caricature. To offer any explanation for Emily’s alleged charisma (“People like me! That’s my strength”) or irresistibility to men. But it’s a show that addresses and inevitably targets an exhausted desire for so-called comfort food—understanding that unlike enlightenment or provocation, comfort stems from what we already know.

If we’re talking about Darren Star’s filmography, the template goes at least as far back as season three of Beverly Hills, 90210, where Brenda pretends to be French on vacation to beguile a pre-Superman Dean Cain. Here, Emily shamelessly revisits Carrie’s more recent American girl in Paris, to the point of reenacting her fecal faux pas in a white ankle boot. There’s something uncannily Bataillean about Star’s fondness for this shorthand, where the “reality” of Paris is like a foul substructure—get your head out of the clouds or suffer the consequences! Grimacing, Emily recovers the moment by managing to Instagram the dog’s oblivious owner, #merde. First as tragedy, second as farce.

For better and worse and far more than being liked, this is Emily’s superpower: an unflagging dedication to scanning every encounter for viable content. She may affect enthusiasm for boundaries, rules, and comprehensive tidiness, but in practice, her phone is the nexus of mutual permeation between intimacy (“life”) and work. We first meet Emily conversing with her phone at the end of a lakefront run in Chicago; she informs her device that the workout is complete and is instantly apprised of her speed: good effort! As much as the downtown skyline, this snapshot of tech-enabled optimization is an instructive establishing shot, indicating this as a world inescapably subject to and shaped by analytics. And as Emily’s glib captions and fine bone structure ensure her climb to minor social media celebrity, the conditions of her success look increasingly punishing, but insidiously familiar—especially to an audience of digital workers for whom interfacing beyond the screen is morbidly unsafe.

Too bad, the show laments, that no amount of digital notoriety or platform integration can ever make Emily cool. Where Carrie was dazzled by the “hideous, just hideous” Eiffel Tower, Emily’s Eiffel-printed blouse and bra suggest an entire novelty subgenre of her wardrobe. Her idea of French cinema is Ratatouille and Saving Private Ryan—a cluelessness the show itself seems to mock with the occasional film citation, like when an episode helmed by Zoe Cassavetes (whose actually funny, actually romantic 2007 film Broken English sends a lovelorn Parker Posey to Paris) nods to Jules et Jim, or when Emily’s necklace-as-headpiece pays homage to Funny Face.

Soliloquizing in Sylvie’s office, Emily demonstrates an awareness of what she lacks. “That slouchy, sexy, je ne sais quoi thing,” the thing that makes young gallerist (and Gabriel’s girlfriend) Camille sparkle and Sylvie ooze. It’s the American fantasy of French girl allure: an unattainably self-possessed cocktail of sexual confidence and effortlessness, impenetrable to Emily—prim, bucket-hatted good effort! Emily—who, in a profound exhibit of American entitlement, spins her admitted artlessness to professional advantage. So she lacks sophistication, so what? Who better than a true aspirant to develop marketing strategy? Who is more qualified than a self-professed customer, whose every interaction is transactive?

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I asked a friend about the translation of Emily’s premier epithet, ringarde, spat by couturier Pierre Cadeau at the sight of Emily’s Francophilic bag charm and positioned in clarifying antithesis to “cool.” Marina, a literary scholar and native speaker, had just seen that episode too. That she’d not heard the word before suggests “it’s nowhere near as ubiquitous and casually used as ‘basic,’” but describes a kind of mediocrity associated, funnily enough, with actors. Colloquially, as an adjective, we get: out of style, out of date. Primarily, as a noun: a bygone performer, the b-list.

It’s ironic, then, that the source of Emily’s rejection becomes that which promotes her to Cadeau’s innermost circle—after they discover an unlikely common text in Gossip Girl, which swiftly replaces Emily’s less dignified office nicknames. The Upper East Side soap is one of Emily’s myriad allusions to the earlier 2000s; run a quick search on “‘Emily in Paris’ + 2012” and you’ll find an infinite scroll of millennial archivists aptly comparing the show to ABC Family’s Jane By Design; critiquing Patricia Field’s Lookbook-era styling; and identifying hotel magnate Randy Zimmer as a grown-up Eion Bailey, AKA the hot pre-med student from 2000’s Center Stage. That a series produced and set in 2020 would so comprehensively resemble the earlier aughts almost gives credence to the view that the world actually ended in 2012, and everything henceforth has been a simulation. Many point to the ludicrousness of Emily’s digital popularity given the mediocrity of her content, but it’s not as if subsequent software updates have radically improved or even diversified what the platform invites us to Explore. The algorithms flatten as well as select, and whether of “Europe” generically or Paris in particular, plenty of grids are still doing numbers for minute variations on peonies, picnics, pallet beds and Juliet balconies, denim cinched around ribs, pooling lattes, untouched pastries, hair ribbons, gilt mirrors, and inexhaustible gradations of beige.

Emily in Paris (2020) | Netflix

When my students conflate depiction with endorsement, we try to parse these actions out within the text. What exactly is said or shown, upheld or undermined? And how does a film let you know? Where Emily in Paris feels most farcical are its forays into self-reflexivity, however fugitive or partial. When Emily pipes up at the De L’Heure commercial shoot that the concept of an exhibitionist fantasy puts the campaign at risk of being “tone deaf to the cultural moment.” When she dumps the reptilian semiotics professor at the Palais Garnier, in a moment that may as well be addressed directly to camera: “You really just don’t like to like anything, do you?” 

Do we? Do we want, as Emily insists, to see the hero win? Or do we agree with her coworker Luc (Bruno Gouery), to whom the show most frequently turns for candid intervention? For Luc, it’s not just that happy endings are cheesy, or escapism makes for poor entertainment—it’s that, in life, escape isn’t viable, and things end every day irrespective of resolution.

My favorite Luc moment—really, my favorite moment of the series—is from his sit-down with Emily in episode one. Running into her at a café, he apologizes for the office’s icy reception, suggesting what they fear are the changes her enterprising American energy may incur. They’d like to keep work work, and life life, but Emily brightly takes exception to the difference: “I enjoy work—and accomplishment. It makes me happy.” After all, work is what brings her to this warm afternoon on the Rue Saint Louis; work is her life’s excuse not to carry on in Wrigleyville forever. Luc hangs for a second with disbelief, then laughs. “Maybe you don’t know what it is to be happy!” For Emily’s sake, it’s a good thing we’ll settle for the simulation.