Alien Nation

French Kiss

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

Written by Adam Brooks

With Meg Ryan, Kevin Kline, Timothy Hutton, Jean Reno, Francois Cluzet, Susan Anbeh, and Renee Humphrey.

The great Hollywood director Ernst Lubitsch once remarked during the heyday of the studios, “There is Paramount Paris and Metro Paris, and of course the real Paris. Paramount’s is the most Parisian of all.” French Kiss offers a movie Paris of its own, but it isn’t one that belongs to any studio or director–or one that any Parisian would recognize. It belongs to this country, and it represents about two decades of bad faith–a copy of a copy of a stereotype, bred out of so much defensiveness and attitude that today anything approximating the real Paris has to be discarded for fear of disorienting the viewer.

After all, French Kiss is a standard-issue romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline, the success of which depends on an audience feeling immediately comfortable wherever it happens to be taken. I can’t vouch for the writer, a Canadian named Adam Brooks, but I suspect that the director, acclaimed hack Lawrence Kasdan, is at least partially aware of the deception involved in making an audience comfortable. He must realize, for instance, that Kline, who plays a Frenchman, is equipped with an accent that bears little resemblance to that of any French person speaking English but has a great deal to do with a by-now hallowed comic tradition of American actors impersonating French people. “Authenticity” is therefore measured by adherence to a familiar set of habits and the success of those habits with audiences.

The same principle applies to the way we commonly perceive other national traits. Ask an average American to name something typically Chinese and there’s a fair chance you’ll be told fortune cookies, an American invention smiled at in Asia. The French term for “French kiss” is baise anglaise, which means “English kiss.” In other words, countries sometimes like to credit other countries with their own inventions in order to define them.

In French Kiss, Meg Ryan plays Kate, an American living in Toronto with Charlie (Timothy Hutton), her Canadian fiance, while she waits for her Canadian citizenship to come through. She instinctively hates the French because “they hate us,” “they smoke,” and she isn’t comfortable with what they do with dairy products. She’s also terrified of flying and refuses to accompany Charlie to a medical conference in Paris. But after Charlie calls her from Paris to announce that he’s fallen madly in love with a Frenchwoman, she grits her teeth and boards a flight to Paris, planning to confront him and win him back.

Sitting next to Kate on the plane is Luc (Kline), your typical obnoxious French male–a petty criminal, we soon discover, who chats her up on the plane, sneaks an illegal plant and a stolen necklace into her purse as they’re going through customs, and then follows her to the George V Hotel. By the time he arrives she’s found out that Charlie has set his room phone on “do not disturb,” as well as been rebuffed by your typical obnoxious hotel concierge and had all her things stolen by another typical obnoxious French male thief who just happens to be a friend of Luc. (As we quickly discover in this movie, every French criminal knows every other French criminal and every cop knows every criminal.) Stealing a car, Luc helps her recover some of her stolen belongings and then, trailed by a cop, accompanies her on the train to Cannes, where Charlie is now headed with his French cutie (Susan Anbeh) to meet her parents. On the way Luc and Kate stop off in Luc’s hometown, where she learns he’s a former landowner from good peasant stock (making him suitable as a hero–earthy and aristocratic) who gambled away his share of the family vineyards; all simple Luc really wants to do now is settle down in the area and grow his own grapes. Then they proceed to Cannes, where everyone, including the Paris cop, is converging, and exactly what you’d expect to happen eventually happens.

The poetic paraphrases of Europe found in Lubitsch comedies and musicals of the 30s were above all selective appreciations lovingly shaped by a former European for the American market. Traces of this idealist tradition persisted in Hollywood for at least four decades (Billy Wilder’s 1972 Avanti! may represent the last full flowering of it), and during the last decade or so of this era a renaissance in European filmmaking based in France and Italy made those countries seem closer than ever to a number of Americans. Since then the distance between us has been growing wider and wider, and it’s not easy to understand why, especially since the distance between the U.S. and parts of Asia, for example, appears to have been shrinking during the same period.

The feelings of closeness that used to exist between the U.S. and Europe were mainly reciprocal. Douglas Sirk’s German feature Final Accord (1936), screened at the Film Center last week, begins with the action shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic between New York City and Berlin as if the two cities were adjacent. A woman in Manhattan regains her will to live while listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony broadcast live from Berlin; the conductor’s nonmusical wife, who’s also in Berlin, doesn’t even think of turning on the radio. Sirk’s utopian point was that emotions cancel distances, which is what happened when Parisian film critic Jean-Luc Godard saw Hollywood movies during the 50s and when American filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Hal Hartley saw some of Godard’s 60s movies during the 80s and 90s.

Yet over the past 20 years a creeping Francophobia has been making such possibilities seem more and more remote to mainstream concerns. It’s hard to know where such an impulse comes from apart from isolationism pure and simple. After all, some Cannes waiters and Parisian concierges are obnoxious, but some aren’t–and I doubt this has changed very much over the past 60 years, during which time this country has undergone a sea change in its attitude toward France.

In the 90s alone you can chart this change by looking at articles about movies and the French in the New York Times Sunday magazine and Arts & Leisure section–always a reliable index of some of the more egregious received ideas of this country’s middle class. There one can read such guff as the notions that the average French moviegoer regards Mickey Rourke as a hero worthy of Greek tragedy and that American spectators are missing today’s greatest French films because we aren’t seeing the original Francis Veber farces Hollywood is remaking. When the Times wanted an article about Cahiers du Cinema to promote a 1992 film series, it commissioned a piece from someone who wrote that the magazine “is no longer fascinated by Hollywood”–a conclusion possible only for someone who hadn’t read or even looked at the covers of the magazine for almost 15 years. Now that Cahiers is about as unfascinated by Hollywood as Premiere and seems uninterested in making discoveries that haven’t already been validated elsewhere, this may be a moot point. But obviously a sense of ease is restored whenever the Times can assure its readers that they aren’t missing out on anything.

French Kiss jettisons every vestige of the Lubitsch and post-Lubitsch Wilder tradition in conveying France to an American audience, but it does reach for a venerable and even faintly archaic Hollywood staple, rear projection, when it comes to dealing with the passing scenery. This theoretically enables Kasdan to respect the geography of real places while shooting in a studio, though when Luc has to drive northeast in his stolen car from the George V Hotel to Pigalle the journey we’re shown takes him southwest to the Palais de Chaillot (so we can take in a good view of the Eiffel Tower), then, in an almost equally improbable detour, due east to the Place de la Concorde. Later, at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, the view from Luc and Kate’s window of the Mediterranean shows the opposite shore–implying that Algeria’s only a few miles away.

Like the ludicrous conversations that take place between French people throughout this movie, this Disney World version of France is wrong for a reason. The daunting challenge of transforming a Francophobe’s France into a romantic backdrop for Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline becomes easier if she isn’t an embarrassing ugly American but a Canadian-in-progress and he isn’t the arrogant guttersnipe he appears to be but is actually landed gentry in disguise, a gentleman informer even the head flic regards with the proper awe and respect. Similarly, the threat of an uncharted Paris and Cannes is removed when both cities are rendered cozy, surrounded by familiar landmarks; even a rude concierge and a snotty waiter become part of the Hollywood-approved scenery. (It’s a pity that Ryan’s most winning trait, her sensuality, is smothered by such calculation, though she does get off a nice, spontaneous little victory dance after impressing her former fiance on the Cannes beach.)

In the final analysis, we tend to mistrust anything we don’t know much about, and the desire not to know much about France may provide a soupcon of protection against looking too closely at some of our own practices and priorities. (The fact that our government gives more money to military marching bands than to all other arts combined is silly enough–especially as part of the argument that we should fund only art unsullied by ideology–but it becomes even sillier alongside French state support of the arts.) One of the most telling moments of French Kiss, clearly unintended as ironic, occurs when Kate sees that Luc has joined her on the train to Cannes and says, “Do what you want. It’s a free country…isn’t it?” Within that short pause of uncertainty can be found the basic roots of our French bashing, as well as the surest confirmation that it will prevail.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Still.

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