‘Emily in Paris’: The Expat’s View

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‘Emily in Paris’: The Expat’s View

What Emily in Paris gets (surprise!) wrong and what it gets (bigger surprise!) right– from an expat’s perspective

One day extraterrestrial life will be discovered, whereupon they’ll surely let us know that the sci-fi movies have been getting it all wrong. Perhaps filmmakers will be invited to workshops about accurately portraying aliens (the program might be called Serving Hollywood—aragula included). In the meantime, let’s consider another cross-cultural case, the new Netflix series Emily in Paris. To a certain extent it’s an obvious homage to Amélie, a film which followed the adventures of a sprightly young Frenchwoman in Montmartre. Emily, a sprightly young American woman from Indiana, is sent by her company to its subsidiary in Paris, to give it l’American touch. The Amélie strain of tele-DNA is recombined with Sex in the City for an unholy amalgam, soufflé-light and Twinky-sweet.

 

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santé paree 🥂

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The production and direction (it’s hard to separate the two in this kind of series) don’t have much to recommend. Emily has been confected in a bubbly way that’s also drearily conventional: The candy-like but cool color schemes as artificial as old-fashioned Technicolor. The occasional speeded-up exterior shots (does anyone know that this American cliché is derived from Zazie in the Metro?). Worst of all, the constant insipid pop music. This replicates the way so many people never go out without their trusty earphones channelling bad music and cancelling out so-called ambient noise. It’s sad, as part of what marked the transition to Paris for many of us was being bathed in the French language, the yipping of those damned toy dogs, the honking traffic, the pam-paw of police cars and fire trucks, all the living soundtrack of Parisian life.

Aside from being sonically off, Emily’s visuals are distorted by their upscale selectivity. Everything, but everything, takes place in Tourist Paris. Sure, this part of Paris exists, and is indeed picture-postcard beautiful. What’s more, people really do live and work there. You can’t expect a pop series to portray executives in the business-like eighth arrondissement, let alone the high rises of La Défense, but Emily’s firm is smack in the center, somewhere within spitting distance of Place Vendôme and the Palais Royal.

Most expats live in modest districts (though even those are becoming more expensive by the millisecond), or else doing like the natives and finding accommodations in the ‘burbs. Even the Bright Young Things of today are more likely to live in the funkier, gentrified neighborhoods in the east of Paris, or the 15th district, by Convention metro. Emily, bless her cheekbones, lives in a gingerbread apartment building in Ye Olde Paris. Her rental agent comically refers to her flat, which looks to be a hundred square meters, as a converted chambre de bonne, or maid’s room. He doesn’t seem to be joking, though if you’ve ever lived in a real chambre de bonne (where you reach for the faucet with one hand, open the window with the other, without ever getting out of bed) it’s still funny.

So the setting of Emily is more Disneyland Paris than the real city where we expats struggle to survive, loving every minute (when we don’t loathe every minute). Our downscale Paris is sometimes yucky, but at least it isn’t icky. What redeems Emily, to some degree, is not so much Emily herself but the actress playing her. Lilly Collins is very pretty: pert, snub-nosed, with pixie-like Audrey Hepburn face and Brooke Shields eyebrows. Her movements and expressions can be animated in a way derived from YouTube stars or characters in music videos, but have genuine comic flair.

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A big part of the comedy resides in how Emily alienates her French co-workers, by being forward and speaking loudly. This isn’t only true of her, but of Americans in general, especially compared to the French. I’ve been told off by crotchety old Parisians in cafés more than once because of my decibel level. What’s considered dynamic and energetic in a budding career in the States really is considered forward and gauche in France. At one point Emily is referred to as The Plouc by her colleagues, ie The Hick. That’s not implausible, but in real life they might have used worse epithets.

Emily’s corporate colleagues are generally portrayed as mean twits, though there will be the inevitable softening endemic in TV series. The French actors enjoy hamming it up, and some of them are actually funny, though we could do without the sole black character constantly rolling his eyes like a 1930s Hollywood darkie. Based on personal experience, Parisian executives of a certain class and background, especially faced with an American (or other foreign) intruder, can indeed act mean. On the other hand, nowadays they’re perfectly capable of acting mean in English. The antiquated trope of French people incapable of a single utterance that isn’t in their mother tongue hasn’t been valid since the days when Parisians smoked in cinemas and had no idea what a Big Mac was.

 

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Aside from the Parisians, Emily becomes friends with a Chinese nanny, Mindy Chen (Ashley Park) whom she meets on a park bench. Mindy says she’s from Shanghai, and somehow it’s implausible that a smart young woman from such a mega-dynamic place would come to Paris to be the equivalent of a domestic. But what rings true is how expats in Paris often meet and befriend other expats, not just “Anglos” but folks from the four corners of the globe

As I’ve been told, the Parisian take on Emily in Paris is that it’s something you have to see … once. I can’t disagree, though I look forward to seeing Ms. Collins in other outlets for her talent. I hate to date myself, but this story of a young woman’s progress as she makes her way through career ups and downs in the big city recalls not so much Amélie, or even Sex in the City, as that 1960s sitcom That Girl, which was ultimately dismissed as irremediably hokey—but only after a successful five-year run.

Production: Darren Star Productions

Distribution: Netflix Streaming

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Lead photo credit : Photo © Emily in Paris, Facebook.

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Dimitri Keramitas was born and raised in Connecticut, USA, and was educated at the University of Hartford, Sorbonne, and the University of London, and holds degrees in literature and law. He has lived in Paris for years, and directs a training company and translation agency. In addition, he has worked as a film critic for both print and on-line publications, including Bonjour Paris and France Today. He is a contributing editor to Movies in American History. In addition he is an award-winning writer of fiction, whose stories have been published in many literary journals. He is the director of the creative writing program at WICE, a Paris-based organization. He is also a director at the Paris Alumni Network, an organization linking together several hundred professionals, and is the editor of its newletter. The father of two children, Dimitri not only enjoys Paris living but returning to the US regularly and traveling in Europe and elsewhere.

Comments

  • Sarah Helge
    2020-10-31 03:54:37
    Sarah Helge
    Well, of course it takes place in "tourist Paris." Isn't that partly what Americans tune in to see? It's so that they can say, "Oh, I remember that" or "I was there, too!" I mean this is a series done for Americans, right? I was honestly surprised that this show was so wholesome after hearing so much about it being like Sex and the City. It's completely different. Agree that's it much more like "That Girl." Definitely a fun chick movie. Have a glass of wine, put up your feet, laugh a lot, and it's a perfect escape from these dark times.

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  • Janet Tollund
    2020-10-30 04:43:25
    Janet Tollund
    My thesis in college was an examination of Zazie dans le Metro! And I completely agree with you about the series. I just watched the first episode, and I must say, I have met many kind people in Paris; but then, I do speak French.

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  • Ellen Reiter
    2020-10-23 04:35:45
    Ellen Reiter
    I subscribed early on. Because I have not been able to fully access any of the members only articles even after just resetting my password, I am very frustrated that I still cannot get more than just the opening piece of the article. I indeed am not at all technically literate so maybe I am doing something wrong but I need help please before I give up in disgust on one of the journals Oneagerly look forward to each week. Thanks.

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  • Joan
    2020-10-22 09:25:39
    Joan
    I adore PARIS my family lives there and I enjoyed seeing PARIS and give the show s break We all need some light fun yo watch I’m covid 19 tune I lost my best friend June 5 she would have loved seeing PARIS like do Give us a break they used an all French crew

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  • jamie Moss
    2020-10-22 08:54:06
    jamie Moss
    I absolutely agree with the critique and admit that my three adult children bolted the room after episode one. Emily in Paris is hardly a Tour de Force of drama or comedy or either, but if you are starved of your beloved city, every scene and glimpse of Paris is priceless

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  • Hazel Smith
    2020-10-22 07:15:49
    Hazel Smith
    Yes. "That Girl" or Hepburn in Funny Face - but that was sixty years ago. Times have changed. This horrid show doesn't realize that. "Emily" is so child-like it threw me off in the first episode when there was a sexual element. ( I watched the first episode and the last 15 minutes of the series) If escapism is what viewers want they should try watching a French series - Dix Pour Cent par exemple - there's many options out there.

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  • Nancy Flemming
    2020-10-22 07:11:02
    Nancy Flemming
    I loved seeing the sights again. As well. I especially loved the cocktail party scene at the Carnivale Museum ( forgot the name) but took my grandkids there last Christmas and it is a magical place! I took so many photos and the outdoor Christmas Market there was spectacular!

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  • Kate Mele
    2020-10-22 06:59:46
    Kate Mele
    Thank you, Dimitri, for this critique. It is so much more refreshing than "Emily in Paris" was intended to be. I must admit, though, I did love all the shots of the city--because I miss being in Paris terribly. Kate in Rhode Island, and also from Connecticut

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