Emily in Paris

Ah, Emily in Paris!  Emily the innocent (who hit Paris running with her open, smiling American face) and Emily the arrogant (who never seemed to realize why the French wouldn’t want to take lessons in marketing or anything else from a young woman who didn’t speak a word of their language) opened a new page on Paris for Francophiles all over the world. Zillions of books have been written about the French, French culture, Franco-American relations but nothing has encapsulated the American dream of Paris as effectively as the popular TV series.

My initial reaction was …horror!  I was exasperated by Emily and her naiveté (although I was just like her when I arrived, with my own open, smiling face – minus the fab wardrobe). I was and still am exasperated by the Big Lie of a pristine Paris. Where on earth and when did the crew do their filming? I asked myself. As one who has lived in Paris for 5 decades, I find no similarities between the real Paris I walk around in and those gorgeous misty whitewashed images we see in the series. Sure, there are clean streets in Paris but many, especially in non-touristic neighborhoods, are garbage strewn and dotted with dog poop and pigeon droppings. Added to that is Mayor Hidalgo’s lack of aesthetic sense, resulting in ugly railroad ties for park benches and work sites all over the city. I did some research on filming locations and they were indeed in Paris. All I can say is that a clean-up crew must have been hard at work before the takes. In making that critique you can see that I have become almost French…

Fortunately, some things in the series offered priceless cultural insights. The French boss, Sylvie, played by the immensely talented actress Pauline Leroy Beaulieu, fits to a T a certain type of Frenchwoman I myself have run across: brittle and disdainful on the surface  (though underneath the tough facade her pity for Emily begins to turn into a kind of grudging admiration) and oh so French.  The way Sylvie holds her cigarette (because of course being French she smokes), the way she efortlessly ties her scarves to perfection and wears the simple but sophisticated clothes on her pencil slim body, the very way she moves and uses her hands stops the young and innocent Emily in her tracks (American expats relate like crazy).  You can’t decide whether to love her, hate her or imitate her.

I love an early scene in which Emily tells her co-worker Luc how much she loves her job.  “Work makes you happy?” he inquires, incredulously. When she confirms, he shakes his head: “Americans live to work”, he says, sadly. “The French work to live.” OK, it may be a huge cliché but it’s so true and made me laugh out loud.  In another moment of Franco-American reckoning, Emily enthusiastically presents yet another new marketing idea to her boss. “You want to open doors – to everyone”, Sylvie exclaims, with undisguised disgust.  “I want to close them.”  (That also resonated. My French husband swears I don’t know the word “no” and am open to every new idea that comes down the pike.   I, on the other hand, swear that “no” is the only word he knows.)  

Then there’s the matter of love and romance:  Emily is shocked to learn that Sylvie is Antoine’s mistress and that his wife is her best friend. When Luc sees her surprised reaction, he shrugs it off laconically: “The French are romantic but also Cartesian.”  Et voilà.  If only for these gems of Franco-American cultural insights, I have revised my judgement of the series.   I still find it basically vacuous but loathe it less.  And – supreme compliment – In some ways it is even “pas mal”, as the French would say. 

4 thoughts on “Emily in Paris”

  1. Thank you for expressing it all beautifully and candidly. Still learning. I was addicted to Dix pour cent when Emily debuted. However, after even one episode of Emily, we’re hooked!

  2. Janice Williams

    Here are some of my thoughts on the series, Harriet. It seemed to me that little research had been done-easier to just stick to stereotypes of the people, the culture and the way of life. For example, everyone was smoking in the office – illegal for decades. The characters are all cliched archetypes and Emily’s clothes are horrendous. They look like the costume department at the Paris Opera had a clearance sale. And I totally agree with you that the storyline was fluffy. That said, we were out of the country during Covid and seeing the beautiful streets of Paris cheered me no end.

    1. Agree with you about the stereotypes and the costumes. I mean, what woman these days would walk to work in those stiletto heels. And what 20 something or year old could afford clothes like the ones Emily has on her back? I think that the beautiful streets of Paris you saw were BECAUSE of Covid – there was no one on them to splay graffiti or throw papers on the ground! They do have some spot on lines about Franco-American cultural differences that show they are far from ignorant about French culture. They’re just playing up to what audiences want – and that is stereotypes.

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