Paris Isn’t Like the Movies, Even When You’ve Seen Them All

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It’d be nice to study French in a Nancy Meyers kitchen: to sit with my legs tucked under me on a three-hundred-dollar rattan barstool at a massive marble island, color-coding conjugation worksheets against a waterfall countertop, the crystallized rock dripping from my elbows to the floor in one fluid movement. A bottle of Pinot—something elegant but unpretentious—would be positioned directly in my eye of sight, tempting me from its wide-lipped wooden coaster across the room. A Hans Zimmer score would shuffle in the background, violins swelling anytime I had a minor intellectual breakthrough.

I took one film class in college, and my main takeaway was that men love Quentin Tarantino. They love his cartoonish brutality and his fictional Red Apple cigarettes. Sure, he’s a great director, and yes, I dressed up as Mia Wallace one Halloween because 1) it was an easy costume, and 2) Fall Out Boy’s “Uma Thurman” was popular that year. But Nancy Meyers’ sets are no less immaculately conceived just because they are plush and welcoming instead of bloody and raw. She, too, is the kind of director who would remove a book from a shelf that Steve Martin (as George Banks in Father of the Bride) wouldn’t read, or a pillow from a couch that Meryl Streep (as Jane Adler in It’s Complicated) wouldn’t buy. The difference is that Tarantino aestheticizes violence, and Meyers aestheticizes comfort.

Compared to Wes Anderson, whose movies similarly feature stunning architecture and sumptuous interiors, Meyers makes “chick flicks,” and he is considered an auteur. But, of course, her films are about later-life romances, not absurdist failed prodigies or the outbreak of a canine flu. 

Also, she’s a woman.

I don’t remember watching Meyers’ The Parent Trap for the first time, but I know it was a staple in my Blockbuster-and-Disney diet of the late aughts. It came out in 1998, the year before I was born, before the ubiquity of the internet and social media when pop culture currency held its value longer. Growing up, I had several irrational fears linked to this film (and others like it), such as losing skinny-dipping bets at summer camp and having my bunkmates run away with all my clothes or turning eleven and finding out that my parents had been lying to me my whole life about my identical twin (or who my birth father was, or if I was the true heir to the Genovian throne, etc.). While I can’t blame Hollywood alone for my generation’s unrealistic expectations re: love, life, and the virus, there were undoubtedly some plot points in turn-of-the-century family films that could have done with a little more social awareness. We were taught to hold out for true love and world travel; surely, that affords us some hope in the face of terrorism and economic inequality, family dysfunction, and divorce. 

***

From birth, I was steeped in characters like Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline and Nik Ranieri’s Lumière. Marie from The Aristocats and Remy from Ratatouille. I gravitated toward Eiffel Tower picture books in the kids’ section of Barnes and Noble, and I understood that one of the defining characteristics of a main character is that they always make it to France eventually, even if it’s not until later in the series. Before Emily in Paris, there was Eloise at the Plaza (same girl, different MPAA rating). 

I started saving to go to Paris when I was around nine, stuffing a series of piggy banks full of birthday money, allowances, and holiday gifts. My dad helped me draft a contract stating that he would cover the rest if I saved at least a thousand dollars. But then the stock market crashed, and his career as a financial advisor took the rest of my childhood to recover. I didn’t begrudge him or anyone else for that, always assuming that a return to prosperity was just around the corner. 

You see, my parents had a two-generation approach to wealth. I imagine them having Taco Bell after a stirring Sunday sermon and working out the logistics: they would lay the groundwork for my financial success, and I would carry the torch to the finish line, which in its final form probably looked like living waterfront in a southern beach town, where I would tithe my ten percent and then vote red in favor of trickle-down theory and a flat tax rate. My parents were first-generation college students, and I would be encouraged to get a master’s or Ph.D. My dad would give up his music dream for a career in finance, and my mom would stay home to make pancakes (with peanut butter, for extra protein) and teach me the French alphabet song.

***

The Parent Trap opens with the wedding of American winery owner Nicholas Parker (Dennis Quaid) and English wedding designer Elizabeth James (Natasha Richardson) aboard a luxurious ocean liner. Fireworks explode across the Atlantic, and they dance and dine to the tune of Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E.” It’s romantic and impulsive, and as soon as the title sequence ends, we flash forward eleven years and nine months later. Suddenly, we’re at a summer camp on the East Coast, where long-lost twins Annie and Hallie (both played by Lindsay Lohan) are reunited following a very heated (!) fencing match. After the fallout of a prank war, during which they’re sentenced to isolate together in a treehouse up the road (look at Meyers, so ahead of her time), they hatch a plan. They’ll switch accents and identities in the hopes of reconnecting with the parents they missed out on, and eventually, they’ll reunite them. Annie flies out to California as Hallie, and Hallie heads to London as Annie. Mischief ensues. 

Upon rewatching The Parent Trap as an adult, I realized there were a lot of things about the film I didn’t remember. For example, I didn’t remember that Dennis Quaid played the twins’ father. Or his girlfriend, the glamorous publicist Meredith Blake (Elaine Hendrix), though I’m sure I hated her at the time. Now, I think she probably would have been a passable stepmom if Annie and Hallie had given her a chance. 

What I did remember was the lushness of the Napa vineyards, the layout of the London townhouse, and the lightness of Natasha Richardson’s voice, like water pouring into a tall glass. I sank back into the story with feelings of intense familiarity and then some surprise. Two decades removed, I can see the underpinnings of what would become Meyers’ signature style: a world where you don’t have to worry about money or ambition because those things have been established off-camera, where they can serve as a backdrop for a more important storyline. You know, the one where love works out.

The absurdity of the parents’ reconciliation went entirely over my head: the idea that all it might take to reconcile a divorced couple living completely divergent lives (on separate continents! for an entire decade!) was some clever twin mischief. Of all the breakups I’ve experienced or witnessed, not one of them ended in vow renewals. Not that it doesn’t happen, of course. Meyers even wrote a Modern Love column for the New York Times about attending a wedding with her ex-husband and feeling some type of way about it.

“Time flew,” she wrote. “The three-hour drive felt like 20 minutes. We checked into our hotel, very rom-com style, the two of us standing side-by-side, announcing our names. I was almost expecting the desk clerk to say unfortunately there was a mistake in the bookings and Charles and I would have to share a room. But no—I was booked in one wing of the hotel, and he was in the other.”

The title of the piece: “Life Isn’t Like the Movies (Even If You Write the Movies).”

***

In a Duke University study entitled “Benign Inequality: Frames of Poverty and Social Class Inequality in Children’s Movies,” researchers found that of sixty-seven main characters in G-rated movies grossing more than $100 million, more than half would be considered upper- or upper-middle-class, and only four percent would be regarded as poor.

“The big theme is that inequality is benign,” lead researcher Jessi Streib said. “Being poor isn’t a big deal. Being working class makes you happy. Anyone who wants to get ahead, and is ambitious, and is a good person, can do so. And the rich happily provide for everyone else. Obviously, that’s not exactly how the world works.”

The dream narrative minimizes economic hardships and presents a false view of upward mobility. Because it’s not easy to incorporate complex ideas about class—or race or gender or sexuality or power—in children’s films and literature, filmmakers didn’t even seem to try for a long time. In my formative years, my perception of a future beyond my parents’ brick rancher was entirely divorced from the concept of intersectionality. Even when life did have certain movie-like qualities (the choppiness of certain flashbacks, the surreal acceptance of a death in the family), they were not the ones I was taught to expect.

***

When I finally did make it to Paris through my college’s study abroad program, it was through scholarships and loans. It’s true what they say—about how when you work for something, you appreciate it more—but it’s not that simple. Yeah, I paid for the pastries out of pocket and the wine tastings through student loans. And then I came home to my retail job, bought a pair of twenty-four-dollar glitter socks (one said “shit” and the other said “faced”), and ended up paying off the tab with a stimulus check. 

***

Exterior, Paris: Afternoon. 

A blond woman stands outside an open-air cafe, a gray messenger bag slung across her hips. Street signs indicate she’s on the corner of Rue de Chevreuse and the Boulevard du Montparnasse. After a moment, she walks in and sits at a table by an open window. Bored, a waiter ambles over, takes the girl’s drink order, and returns almost immediately with a miniature flute full of something bronzy and orange and very, very still. Based on the girl’s facial expression, it’s clear that this is not the drink she was expecting. Or maybe it was, but upon seeing it alone next to an open laptop in hundred-degree heat, she realizes it’s a strange thing to order without food at 4 p.m. on a weekday in July. 

Merci beaucoup,” she says, enunciating each phoneme as precisely as possible: /mɛʁ si bo ku/. The waiter nods with the cool amusement she’s come to expect from Parisians. He rejoins his conversation with the bartender. She returns to her emails. 

***

In college, I was especially fond of one particular French professor: Dr. Scott Juall, whose class I took six times. One afternoon during the spring semester of my junior year, I stayed back after his travel writing and ethnography lecture to talk to him about something that has since slipped my mind. “Walk with me,” he suggested because he was short on time, so we headed across campus together in the direction of his office.

The conversation would have fit in quite nicely with a feel-good film sequence from a Meyers’ film: Georgian-inspired campus architecture, and at any moment, you can expect to see Robert DeNiro doing tai chi in a park. As we walked, I tiptoed around my plans for an honors thesis, vaguely mentioning my outstanding graduation requirements. 

“I’d be happy to be your advisor,” Dr. Juall offered as if sparing me the anxiety of having to ask him outright. “I can help you figure out an interesting project. You could do something with Jacques Cartier, Jean de Léry, or someone else we’re studying right now. What interests you? Something in literature? Linguistics?” I was flooded with relief. Generally, I don’t mind difficult conversations—the kind where you’re asking for something—but I never quite cracked foreign language professors. They’re too brilliant. Too intimidating. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, that would be so helpful.”

***

When well-meaning friends or family members ask about my honors thesis in French, I say, “I studied a very particular linguistic concept called the <e> muet.” If they press for more information (which they rarely do, most of them nodding in vaguely appreciative disinterest before moving onto lighter conversational fare), I elaborate that “it’s a phoneme with unique behavioral properties in French. It’s, like, a sound that can be kept or dropped in spoken conversation depending on the formality of the register. Kind of like contractions in English.” If we make it to this point (which I must again insist is very rare), they nod more affirmatively, pleased with themselves for taking the time to get to the heart of my work. Thus thoroughly acquainted with such an abstract linguistic concept, they float through the rest of wine night on a kind of intellectual high, as if although they did not complete the research themselves, they have no doubt they could have. Perhaps that’s the whole charm of academia in the first place: to know that you could be an expert in a highly nuanced subfield of French linguistics but devoted your time (quite rightly) to engineering or economics instead.

That fall, I TA’d for Dr. Juall’s French linguistics class, and his students became the subject of my research. To quote my abstract, my project was “a comprehensive phonological investigation of how students of French as a Foreign Language (FLE) at an American university mastered their understanding of the <e> muet—specifically, the maintaining or dropping of the <e> muet in different spoken registers.”

For the students in Dr. Juall’s class to use the phoneme in the appropriate context, they first had to learn to identify and pronounce it correctly. Over a semester of formal instruction, I was able to track their mastery of it and how they improved their understanding of related concepts, such as liaison, enchaînement, and register. But when it came to evaluating these results, the implications were more fraught. How do subtle, subconscious linguistic choices reflect how we feel about the people around us? How is the way in which we speak to our parents different from how we speak to our friends, our students to our teachers, our siblings to our great loves? If there is no one-size-fits-all communication style, how do we effectively articulate fear, respect, fellowship, and intimacy?

There are so many intricacies to language and tone, but when I reflect on my thesis—the early months spent in the classroom, and the later months spent in quarantine, writing at a borrowed foldout desk—the only clear image I return to is the one of Dr. Juall and me on Chancellor’s Walk several springs ago. I see the afternoon sunshine breaking through the sweetgum trees and the skateboarders weaving around us like crashing was an impossibility.

***

“Well, if you ask me, those bouquets are a little too robust for a merlot,” Lindsay Lohan says as eleven-year-old Hallie (pretending to be Annie) in The Parent Trap. “But then again, I’m partial to a southern California grape.” Because she grew up on a vineyard in California with her dad, Hallie had an obnoxiously developed palate, prompting her mom and grandfather—and their stereotypically English butler, of the secret handshake fame—to laugh in disbelief when she launched into her commentary on varietals.

 As a young girl gluttonously absorbing one of my first rom coms, these two lines of dialogue framed a defining moment in my life: the moment that drinking became cool. Up until that point, alcohol was of less than no interest to me. I regarded my parents’ rotating assortment of domestic and imported beers—tucked under heads of lettuce in the vegetable crisper or sandwiched between mustard bottles in the refrigerator door—with extreme distaste. To my Sunday schooler self, drinking was just something adults did around my uncle’s pool because they were too old and tired to swim.

The burden of petty legalism didn’t miraculously lift from my shoulders the moment Hallie Parker wittily critiqued a glass of merlot. But I was enamored by her, by the authority of her voice and the charm of her youth. As an ideal, she was aspirational—just a little older than me—if not attainable. I watched hungrily as she sat with her wealthy family in a glamorous London dining room, ginger hair flaming against green patterned wallpaper.

In true Meyers fashion, everything about the moment was brilliantly framed, from Lohan’s delivery to the adults’ delayed response, which elicited sneaky smiles and side-eyes from child viewers and knowing laughter from their adult counterparts. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the Atlantic, Annie was also on the verge of blowing her cover, accidentally launching into arguments with herself in fluent French, which she picked up from her wedding designer mom. 

The emotional levity onscreen was so different from the feelings I normally associated with alcohol. Yes, my parents drank honestly: “everything in moderation,” my dad said, quoting Oscar Wilde, “even moderation,” but it still felt taboo. Because I was a child, because I walked the straight and narrow, because even if alcohol wasn’t the root of all evil, it seemed to contribute to a lot of it. But in a Meyers film, as I was beginning to learn, it could be something altogether different. Something elegant, something stylish. It was pleasing to the senses, part of the comfortable, chromatic luxury that served as the backdrop to relationship drama.

***

Interior, jazz lounge: Evening. 

The blond girl from before is seated at a corner table with a bunch of people she doesn’t know. It’s loud in the lounge and hot—so hot that, in an act of desperation, someone blows out the fat white candle in the center of the table. But the waiter with the ankle tattoos immediately comes back and relights it, so they figure they weren’t supposed to do that. The drinks arrive in saucer-like vessels with foamy tops and spiky fruit in the centers. They taste fine, but it’s the kind of taste you forget as soon as it leaves your lips, not the kind you crave.

The girl to her left—the one in the snake earrings—says something funny, and the waiter with the ankle tattoos smiles, but without feeling. The Frenchglish flows more easily after that, but then he asks how they’d like their check. “Divisée,” they cheer, and everybody laughs.

***

A decade after inking that handwritten contract with my dad—the one where he promised me the world on the condition of wanting it enough—I finally put a deposit down on my first trip to Paris. For three years, I had worked as many hours as I could, slinging jewelry and jeans and entry-level designer handbags, to save and budget as much for my summer abroad as possible. But in the weeks leading up to my departure, I started having massive anxiety about everything I was responsible for: the flight details, the SIM cards, the misplaced immunization records. 

As a result, the most mundane activities—sleeping, breathing, carrying a thought to completion—became difficult. I would go to get gas and stare blankly at the pump, unable to remember how the process worked, and drive home on empty. A few days before I left, I had a panic attack getting out of my boyfriend’s car and collapsed on my parents’ front lawn. I don’t remember exactly what set me off, but I know my mom rubbed my back, my dad got me water, and my boyfriend carried me to bed. The next morning, I was pretty much back to normal.

“Paris has been my dream for as long as I can remember,” I wrote on my blog that week. “And when I say that, I don’t mean ‘for the last couple years’ or ‘since I saw Amelie in high school.’ It may have begun with a shallow fascination—in elementary school, there was definitely a series of posters in my bedroom with cartoon poodles prancing around the Eiffel Tower—but over time, Paris became a benchmark of my independence. For my entire childhood, Paris was somewhere I couldn’t afford, somewhere I couldn’t speak the language, somewhere I couldn’t get to without my parents’ financial and logistical help. But now, finally, at nineteen, I’m getting to go for the first time. And I’m doing it on my own.”

I still can’t pinpoint exactly where that panic came from. All I know is that I had a lifetime’s worth of anticipation built up inside me, and passion is a spidery thing: it’s impossible to trace the love (or the fear) of something back to a single source. In any case, once I was in motion, the anxiety passed. I touched down in Paris with only a backpack and a carry-on. I figured, for six weeks, I could do with only the essentials (I couldn’t; I bought a suitcase from Monoprix to check on the flight home). I figured out how to buy a metro pass, and I lugged my small bags from Charles de Gaulle to my host family’s apartment in the fifth arrondissement. Andie Caroline, my roommate, greeted me in nearly fluent French. A student at a private school in Memphis who sewed her own clothes and went on long runs in star-spangled running shorts, we bonded over films and recreating moments throughout Paris.

That summer served as a rollicking preamble to my thesis, evenly sandwiched between that spring walk down Chancellor’s with Dr. Juall and my tenure as his TA. If I had thought that French professors at my home university were intimidating, they were nothing compared to real-life Parisians. Fucking up during an oral exam is a uniquely humiliating experience, but there is always a hopeful glint in the professor’s eye, extending you a chance at redemption. But to converse at length in a language that feels so fundamentally not your own is, in a word, exhausting. If I had a few months longer to study and practice in real-world situations, I might have hit my stride, reaching a level of fluency that could stave off social discomfort.

That never quite happened, but I felt at home in Paris despite never feeling at home in the language. And when I went back to college in the fall, Dr. Juall asked me what I had picked up about the <e> muet, so far as native speakers used it. “Well, my primary instructor was a poet,” I said. “So he pronounced a lot more of them than I would have expected.”

A native speaker’s usage of the <e> muet can reveal a lot about them, such as what region of the francophone world they’re from. Southern French, for example, is musical, warm, friendly, soft. Near the Mediterranean, it’s common for speakers to pronounce almost all of the optional <e>s, regardless of the formality of the register. The usage of the phoneme can also reveal a lot about the dynamics of the conversation itself, such as how the communicators view each other and who is in a position of authority (the more formal the register, the more optional <e> muets will be maintained out of deference [or respect, or custom, or whatever you want to call it]).

Interestingly, these variations become more nuanced when dealing with non-native speakers. I spent the fall semester tracking my students’ progress—through a series of voice recordings—and the spring semester analyzing my findings. 

When I finally completed my thesis, it was in the spring of 2020, smack in the middle of the world’s undoing. The defense was hosted by Dr. Juall over Zoom and attended by a handful of interested professors—mainly from the world languages department—and my poor boyfriend. His high school Latin and introductory college German rendered him useless but not unsupportive. 

For two semesters, I had dedicated my entire life to the <e> muet: I had established a theoretical framework by which I could evaluate my students’ mastery of it. I had spent long nights that stretched into late mornings with papers and books fanned around my bed, lined against the window, and sorted into stacks on that borrowed foldout desk. I rewound and replayed thirty-four audio recordings of varying sound quality until r’s and l’s, p’s and b’s, and t’s and d’s sounded exactly the same.

The last six weeks, when I was racing to the finish line, Dr. Juall’s advice became a refrain: “Slow down, and focus on the research,” he said, as I rewrote every chapter and reconfigured every set of data, according to his detailed feedback. “I know you’re in a hurry to finish, but you have to make sure the analysis is solid before moving forward. The conclusion doesn’t matter. Well, of course it matters, but once you’re ready, it’ll write itself.”

***

Every metropolis has a certain intimacy. Back home, I never ran into anyone anywhere—unless, of course, I hadn’t washed my hair in three days or was on the phone with my insurance company at the eye doctor. But in Paris, it happened all the time. I’d be shopping at the Galeries Lafayette with my roommate and run into another girl from our program. Or I’d leave the Rodin Museum, and upon rounding the corner, there’d be a girl I’d met two weeks earlier ordering a chicken Caesar at an open-air cafe and waving at me to join her. It was the kind of thing that only happens in movies.

One afternoon while I was sitting in a cafe near school, I received an email inviting me to a graduate-level publishing practicum in the fall. My enrollment would mean I could only TA two or three of Dr. Juall’s linguistics classes each week, and I allowed myself a small rush of relief. I might have to withdraw from the project and coast to graduation. I can’t pass up this opportunity, I emailed him, thinking that maybe I finally had a good enough excuse to drop from the major to the minor. But he responded almost immediately, saying the practicum wouldn’t be a problem and, of course, he’d find a way for me to manage both. Just like that, the muscles in my chest cinched back up to their usual tightness, and I felt the next nine months of my life locking into place. 

And then someone (a shadowy figure—not because it was dark, but because I have bad eyesight) called my name from across the street.

I absorbed this new presence like I was listening to an EMS radio report: a twenty-year-old male, alert and oriented to person, place, time, and events. One of the guys from my program, whom I’d met maybe twice. I smiled and waved: “Hey, Luke, how are you?” The bartender and waiter glanced in my direction, and I imagined they were disappointed in me for switching to English. I spoke more softly. “What are you doing around here?”

In Meyers’ 2003 comedy Something’s Gotta Give, playboy Jack Nicholson finally earns his keep when he flies to Paris to surprise Diane Keaton on her birthday. “Look who gets to be the girl,” Nicholson says as he stands alone on the Pont d’Arcole after feeling rejected by Keaton (and her new boyfriend, played by Keanu Reeves) at dinner. A river cruise floats by, snow starts to fall, and his effortlessly looped periwinkle scarf probably isn’t enough to keep him warm. But the story can’t end there: a taxi pulls up, plummeting a lovestruck Keaton into Nicholson’s arms. “Turns out the heart attack was easy to get over,” he says right before they embrace. “You were something else.”

Sometimes life is like the movies, but mainly it’s not. A happy coincidence doesn’t always indicate a grand design; a chance encounter in the street rarely serves as the precursor to something else, something more significant. Onscreen, those moments are charged with transformative possibility, with power. Fictional serendipity is as comfortable as a cashmere throw, as kinetic as wine drunk straight from the bottle. But in real life, the moment ends, and the tape keeps running. Sometimes wonderful things happen—a long-lost friend rounds the corner, cool rain slices through record-breaking heat. But it’s a quiet catharsis. Always inconclusive. We tip our hats to coincidence and go about adventuring.

***

Exterior, Paris: Night

Two girls from the lounge—the blond one and the tall one in the hand-sewn shirt—sit on the steps of St.-Etienne-du-Mont, passing a bottle back and forth. It’s a 2015 Médoc: not the cheapest bottle at the Carrefour, but nothing crazy. The girls’ foreheads are slick with sweat, their sandals covered in thick layers of dust that curl and blacken around their toes. The tall one is perched like a pianist, her spine erect and eager, and the blond one is slumped back on her elbows. Together, they sit in silence, watching the cafe patrons across the street wind up forkfuls of pasta and drink out of frozen oranges. 

A man approaches them and launches into rapid French. He’s asking them for something; no, he’s inviting them somewhere, to a meeting, a service, a religious event. They shake their heads no, and he eyes an unsuspecting couple twenty yards away. After the man leaves, they Google the name of his organization and then settle back into silence. They’re not expecting anything magical to happen, but it’s nice to entertain the possibility. The streetlights cast an orange glow on the wood-slatted garbage cans across the way, and the sky darkens from a midnight blue to an inky black.

After a while, the tall one stands up. “Tu es prête?” she asks, and her friend nods. Because Paris isn’t like the movies, even when you’ve seen them all.