Innocence Abroad — “Emily in Paris” II

October 16, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Back in early days of television (the 1950s), novelist Herb Gold trying his hand at TV writing was told by the producer to turn out stories of “happy people with happy problems.” I had forgotten that line, but watching “Emily in Paris” reminded me.

When I wrote my first post (here) about “Emily in Paris,” I had seen only the first two episodes. I have now watched all ten. It’s sort of like eating M&Ms one at time. You know that they’re not the greatest chocolate in the world, but they’re sweet and pleasant and colorful, so it’s easy to pop in the next one.

Besides its fidelity to the “happy problems” template, the show reproduces two themes that often underlie American movies and TV. The first is the VE Day trope — victory in Europe. Emily, the naive but honest and hardworking American, is up against the sophisticated and scheming Europeans in her office, and of course she emerges victorious.

It’s the light-hearted comedy cover of a song that’s often sung in a darker key in noirish films. Sneaky foreigners conspire, dissemble, and hatch complicated plots to achieve their nefarious ends. A guileless American finds himself thrust into the middle of this web, but rather than devising his own devious strategy, he plays it straight — no lies, no deceit, just intelligence, integrity and grit. And of course he wins out over the foreigner baddies. Tom Hanks in “Bridge of Spies,” Jimmy Stewart in “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Cary Grant (technically not an American), in “North by Northwest” Dustin Hoffman in “Marathon Man.”

(In the “The Third Man,” Joseph Cotten arrives in post-war Vienna and thinks he’s in this same kind of American movie. He isn’t. He’s in a European movie. Not only do all his happy assumptions prove wrong, but his open, straightforward approach gets a good man killed.)

The other movie trope that Emily embodies is the superiority of children over grown-ups. In a 2008 post (Childhood — Purity or Danger?) contrasting American and British movie kids, I said,

In American movies, children are usually good. They are uncorrupted by adult motivations like greed, lust, anger, pride, etc. The adults in their lives, especially the men, are either well-meaning but ineffectual, even foolish, or downright vindictive. Children are not just morally superior, they are more competent and more resourceful.. . .

Emily is not literally a child,* but she is younger than everyone else in the show. It’s also useful to think of child vs. adult as not necessarily a matter of age but of power and position. In “Emily in Paris,” age and power combine in the recurring conflict between Emily, lowest in the office hierarchy, and Sylvie, the fifty-ish woman who is at the top. In episode after episode, Emily comes up with happy solutions to happy problems.

It occurred to me that these two movie motifs (young/old, America/Europe) are really variants of the same larger theme — the attractiveness of innocence. Children — at least American children in American movies — are innocent and untroubled. Free of inner conflict or doubt or selfish motive, they are the ones who can set things right. That’s also true of their adult counterpart, the American in Europe. All this fits well with the image many Americans have of their own country in relation to the rest of the world. Other countries scheme and deceive; they cannot be trusted. The US, in contrast, acts on the purest of motives.

This belief in our own innocence is remarkably durable. Often in the past, some event has led us to announce that we have lost our innocence. But that is quickly forgotten, so that when the next troublesome event happens, our pundits can again tell us that now, this time, we have lost our innocence. (See this earlier post, Not That Innocent, with Chistopher Hitchens’s wonderful commentary on American innocence.) Even worldly Americans, like New York Times columnist David Brooks (here), cling to this belief in America’s innocent purity.

At least with TV shows, we recognize the fairy tale of innocence for the fiction that it is.

* Actress Lily Collins, who plays the title role in Emily in Paris, said in an interview that she imagined Emily’s age to be twenty-two. Buzzfeed went nuts. Completely unrealistic, complained an article and the comments (here) . No 22-year old would have a masters in marketing. Nor would she be able to afford all those wonderful clothes Emily wears, and if she could afford them, she would have no room for them in her tiny chambre de bonne. All true, but realism is not the point.

Other posts on children in movies include:
The Kids Are Always Right,
The Descendants

Friends, Kids, Sex


DJL said...

Ha! I was wondering if you were thinking of The Third Man, and you were. Thanks for reminding me that I need to watch it again. The Japanese love the theme, and it made it's appearance in a big band gig I used to do every year, and every year I had to relearn it: it sounds simple, but the repeating phrases and rhythms are subtly different each time. (Guitar is the closest approximation the band had to a zither.)

As I've probably mentioned before: there was a French film called (in English) "Happy New Year", and there was a US remake. The original was lovely, the remake heavy-handed and terrible. Sigh. The "You're looking in the wrong direction" "Parallax", "Ah, blonde parallax", "No, brunette parallax" bit worked for me, making it my second favorite movie comedy bit after "Oy, you've got the wrong vampire" in what is arguably the worst movie ever made (The Fearless Vampire Killers), which is arguably about Americans in Europe, making this not completely off topic.

Jay Livingston said...

The Third Man is one of my favorite films of all time and for the reason I mentioned in the post. If it were an American film, as Cotten thinks it is, the official police , would be wrong, the private eye would be right. It wouild only look as though the friend was doing wrong. The girl would choose the nicer, better-looking, and honest man. Cotten still seems to be hoping that he’s in the American version in that wonderful closing shot as Valli walks past.

Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with either of the New Year films.

DJL said...

"It would only look as though the friend was doing wrong."

Exactly! You've got the formula down. It seems you missed your calling as a Hollywood screen writer...

Here's the wiki description of that French film. It wasn't a great, or even slightly significant film, but it was light and lovely.