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« Non Negotiable Demands redux | Main | Bye bye France redux »

September 28, 2002

Bye, Bye France

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

Some sociological phenomena seem to pass by completely unnoticed, and (for no good reason) I'd like take note of one of these: the way that France has grown to be of so little interest to Americans.

I'm happy to mock France as a nation of underbathed, self-important cowards and showoffs; lord knows they ask for it. Still, I once spent a (miserable) year there, I was drawn to the arts via French movies, novels and painting...

this one.jpg
Anouk Grinberg in "Mon Homme"

However pathetic those personal fact are, France for a very long time meant a lot to Americans. Many of the best American artists and architects of the 19th century went to Paris to polish off their educations. Throughout the 20th century, serious American artists, modernist division, took inspiration from early 20th-century French art. France meant love, food, beauty, fatalism, pleasure, wine, absinthe, unfiltered cigarettes. Oh, and sophisticated actresses who didn't mind disrobing, and who did so with a queen's gravitas.

Everyday people took France seriously too. Wifeys and hubbies plotted out their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimages to Paris. Anyone interested in taste and food bowed down before French cuisine. Kids studied more French than they did any other language, and college students flocked to spend a semester or two in Paris -- this seemed especially important to a certain class of girls, who appreciated learning "how to be a woman": ie., learning how to wear a scarf and boots, how to use makeup, how to conduct an affair, and how to use a bidet. Going to France was a way of symbolizing that you put such ooh-la-la values above (patooie) business, economic efficiency and convenience. It was an American's one stab at what Americans feel so divided about: Sophistication.

Then the French lost their magic. When? How? And why? As far as I can tell, it happened around 1980. There was a micro-mini-genre of movies about American kids in France ("French Postcards" in 1979, and the immortal "Summer Lovers" in 1982). And, really, have we heard much about France as a cultural magnet since? Perhaps readers can fill in a few blanks here.

marie-france pisier for web.jpg
Marie-France Pisier in "French Postcards"

Why have Americans lost interest? Perhaps it's because we've made so much progress where quality-of-life questions go. Who needs France when American food has gotten better and American clothes have grown less dorky, and at a time when sex is, to put it mildly, not in short cultural supply?

But perhaps the French themselves have blown it: A friend who lives in Paris tells me that even the food in Paris isn't good any more.

What, in fact, does France have left to sell? I still find their fashions alluring, or at least the way they present them. I'd rather leaf through an issue of Marie-Claire than an issue of Playboy any day, and one fashion-crazy friend of mine still takes off for some serious Parisian shopping a couple of times a year.

from deniseweb.jpg
Camgirl, French-style

Even on the Web, the French show some style; their personal sites, for instance, have more chic than ours do. There seems to be a small movement called libertins/libertines -- swingers -- and these sex sites (for example, here) combine art, style and sex more amorally and pungently than our sex sites do. The new assertive-young-woman archetype also plays out more sexily in France, or at least so it seems to me at a great (and contented) distance: compare the arty, poetic Marie.Mathilde, here, to the typical American camgirl site. And, ah, le cinema: The (very occasional) French movie delivers some of the old arthouse goods: "Romance," "Mon Homme," a few others.

I'm a big silly about a lot of this, I suppose. But one French achievement still holds my attention: I remain as enchanted as ever by "the French woman" as a cultural and bred-to-type creation. French women seem as stylized and unreal as ballet dancers, yet they're funky too, and I'm as happy as ever to watch them do the mystifying things they do, especially on a movie screen.

Happily for me, a few French actresses still come through with the kind of disdainful sophistication that can give me such a thrill. Emanuelle Beart, once asked by an interviewer what she'd hoped to accomplish by spending so much time naked in "La Belle Noiseuse," looked loftily at the interviewer and responded, "I hope you will see my soul."

Indeed! And: Phew!



posted by Michael at September 28, 2002


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