Where Nothing is Gilded

Netflix and HBO muddle the trope of the American abroad

Where Nothing is Gilded

Illustration by Lucia Gaia

Why do Americans go to Europe? Or, more accurately, why did they? (It will be a while before we’re allowed again.)

The answer could be a vague interest in European history — more elaborate, and seemingly gilded, than our own. Or it could be a narcissistic wish to make ourselves into Hemingway, swaggering by the Seine. What we’re mainly looking for is a wholly un-American kind of freedom. Not the freedom of Freedom Fries or, worse, the free market, but an aperitivo freedom, a cigarettes-in-the-morning freedom. The freedom to play it cool, to spend three hours at lunch, to take one-hour flights between countries smaller than Texas. In the 1960 winter issue of Partisan Review, the critic Elizabeth Hardwick put it more generously: An American “may exile himself,” she wrote, “for the freedom of solitude, the purity of the release from useless obligations and conventions.”

These days, though, Americans who travel to Europe don’t typically find freedom from America so much as drag it across the ocean with them. We’ve exported our menacing brand of buttoned-up, skyscraper capitalism to the business districts of every European capital, along with our wrecking ball of a tech industry.

True, the American tourist in Europe has always been a somewhat pathetic figure: garrulous, naïve, money belt jangling. (Think of the overeager Christopher Newman in Henry James’s The American, who tries in vain to impress haughty Parisians, or Elizabeth Gilbert in her memoir Eat Pray Love, whose mawkish, self-involved style of tourism has inspired a thousand copycat journeys.) But we simultaneously wield a kind of authority on the continent. English is Europe’s lingua franca; our passports (used to) get us into whichever country we want; American franchises follow us from Dublin to Moscow, so we can buy a globalized slice of home in every city. We can travel widely, but are never challenged to adjust to new settings. As the stereotype goes, we fail to immerse ourselves in the places we visit, which we ransack for experiences instead — stories, or even just photographs, to produce as proof of our own acculturation.

Two recent TV shows have animated the stark silhouettes cast by American identities abroad. In We Are Who We Are (HBO) and Emily in Paris (Netflix), European cities become attractive backdrops against which to explore America’s apparent strengths and acute failures, which overlap with the characters’ own dramas.

We Are Who We Are, directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name, A Bigger Splash), follows a group of American teens on a military base in Chioggia, Italy, where their parents are stationed, and where they are more or less confined. Around them is a modest but lively town: smooth beaches, raucous osterias, bleached pastel villas. But the military complex — as both ideology and infrastructure — keeps the teens boxed in, and weaned on a steady diet of guns, chauvinism, and orange cheese. American movies are shown at the cineplex, American brands tendered at the grocery store, American rhetoric piped over the loudspeakers. There’s even a cinder block replica of a suburban high school, grubby lockers and all.

It’s there that Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer), an eccentric transplant from New York, meets Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), who has lived on the base for years. Their eyes meet during a familiar episode of the American high school experience: Caitlin is asked to recite a poem in front of the class, and does so haltingly. Fraser finds himself transfixed. Thus begins their relationship, which careens from apathy — Caitlin’s, for Fraser, at first — to quasi-romantic intimacy. Fraser doesn’t actually want to date Caitlin, but doesn’t foreclose the possibility, either. (“We’re never gonna kiss,” he tells Caitlin, grabbing her hand and stroking it.)

Guadagnino is most interested in these ambivalent, freighted dynamics between characters, but an affection for setting abides. In the early episodes, every shot seems hazy, sun-soaked. It’s fall in Chioggia, but perpetually summer, too — an atmosphere that’s both heady and somnolent. Events unfold slowly; sideways glances become extra charged. Chioggia is less charming than the Lombardy of Call Me By Your Name, the acclaimed 2017 film that introduced his work to a wider audience. But the scruffy seaside city is just right for Fraser and Caitlin, who are drawn to tight corners. Like nesting animals, they cuddle on Caitlin’s small fishing boat or in Fraser’s dorm-like room, and squeeze themselves onto rickety buses. Out the window, the landscape flicks by, unremarkable but serene.

Apart from bike rides off the base and trips to the beach, Caitlin and Fraser aren’t particularly interested in Italy, though why would they be? They haven’t chosen to move to Chioggia, and life as military brats means that they enjoy a strange, dual status — neither outsider, nor insider. They’re young enough to pick up the language, but too outwardly American to blend in. (Fraser, obsessed with fashion, wears chains and nail polish; his signature outfit features a pair of leopard print pants.) It’s this liminal identity — half-belonging, half-not — that proves so fruitful for Caitlin and Fraser, both of whom are experimenting with their sexuality and gender expression. Caitlin thinks about transitioning and picks up local girls; Fraser, openly androgynous, flirts tentatively with a male soldier.

There’s something uniquely American about their curiosity: a desire to push past boundaries, to break new ground. (Against her parents’ wishes, and in search of a more masculine appearance, Caitlin shaves her head; afterward, she gawps at herself in the mirror, delighted by the transgression.) But by distancing themselves from the base and all it represents — rigidity, self-sacrifice — they are able to access feelings they’ve long been denied: the pleasure of intimacy, and of real self-knowledge. Caitlin and Fraser have learned what many tourists never do, or never can. The selves we go abroad as should be provisional, unfixed; we can drop our American baggage at the door and leave in a different form.

As in Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino excels at capturing ambiguity: the awkwardness and thrills found between childhood and adulthood, Italy and America, gay and straight identities. Sometimes, though, too many questions are left unanswered. Fraser tends to lash out at his mother, Sarah, in abusive (and not merely childish) ways. Are we supposed to take this as a symptom of his confusion? Guadagnino doesn’t let on, which makes Fraser a puzzling figure; the audience isn’t necessarily inclined to sympathize with him.

We Are Who We Are is also about waning American dominance, set — somewhat obviously — just before the 2016 election. Debates between Trump and Hillary blare on television screens in every room on the base; Caitlin’s father, played as a flat stereotype by Scott Mescudi (also known as the rapper Kid Cudi), is a choleric, hyper-conservative Trump supporter. The military base is a space in which American authority should be absolute. Instead, it bears signs of a cracked-up country and culture, clinging to nebulous, wilted principles: discipline, tradition, justified interventionism.

Sarah, the new corporal of the base (played by a smoldering Chloe Sevigny), is a kind of army bureaucrat in a bullshit administrative job, and the rituals she oversees — parades, ceremonies, training sessions — look less like shows of military might and more like school assemblies. (Indeed, a ceremony for Sarah is held in the Astro-Turfed high school stadium, with bored base kids crowded in the bleachers.) Beneath this dull facade lies something more sinister: a misguided belief in American unassailability. Later in the series, a mission in Afghanistan ends in the deaths of several soldiers from the base, including a friend of Fraser and Caitlin’s. In the protracted fight for “global freedom” — what is that, exactly? — America has stumbled, and fired in the wrong direction; ultimately, it is out to destroy itself.

The same goes for domestic life. Fraser’s liberal family is as screwed as Caitlin’s conservative one, as Guadagnino makes abundantly clear. There are so many argument scenes involving the families, many of which erupt into physical violence, that I started skipping through them. At times, these characterizations seem contrived. A secondary plot line sets up an affair between Maggie, Sarah’s wife, and Jenny, Caitlin’s mother — a clunky addition to an already complicated cross-family dynamic. But Guadagnino’s point lands: America’s modern families are hardly an improvement on last century’s model, rife with conflict, secrets, repressed desires.

“Americans can only be happy in America,” remarks Fraser, a statement that rings both true and false. The parents often seem homesick — Jenny, from Chicago, watches Cubs games on repeat — but also like they’d be unhappy anywhere. Caitlin and Fraser aren’t happy in Chioggia, exactly, but life on the compound has its flashes of joys. The teens run down darkened streets, groove drunkenly at illicit parties, lean against each other to share earbuds. These are experiences they don’t seem to have had anywhere else. They could only happen here, in this not-America America, both a cage and a dream world.

By contrast, the experiences had by Emily, of Netflix’s Emily in Paris, seem like they could have happened in literally any other city.

Does anyone still think you can only find croissants and macarons in Paris? Yes: Emily (Lily Collins), a Chicago native who alights in Paris on a work assignment for a marketing company and — quelle surprise — falls in love, with both city and man (the trademark subjects of the show’s creator, Darren Star, also behind Sex and the City). To Emily, those pastries are Paris distilled, fitting for a character with no more substance than a croissant flake. Emily in Paris zips past every noteworthy part of Paris (unless you consider the Eiffel Tower noteworthy, which most French people don’t): Being an avid long-distance runner, Emily has no time to dawdle, flâneur-like, on Paris’s boulevards. In fact, she might be the anti-flâneur, utterly unconcerned with her surroundings, except for their potential as Instagram backgrounds. Obviously, Emily’s lack of appreciation for French culture fails to endear her to her new French coworkers, all of them louche and petulant — clearly in need, that is, of American sweetness and sincerity.

Great stories have been told about American travelers disconnected from European settings, but Emily in Paris is not one of them.

In Richard Linklater’s 1995 film Before Sunrise, the thoughtless, peripatetic wanderings of a young couple, Celine and Jesse, don’t reveal much about Vienna to them, which is Linklater’s point. Celine and Jesse are navel-gazers, too self-concerned to stop prattling about their lives and take a look at the centuries-old monuments around them. Linklater’s characters are also part of a long tradition: the trope of the indifferent American tourist. In Henry Miller’s 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer, the narrator — a thinly disguised Miller — spends most of his time in Paris sitting around his lousy, squalid boarding house, or having disappointing sex. It is an extraordinary and unflinching portrait of the sordid lives of so-called “bohemians” abroad — people struggling (and failing) to make connections in an unforgiving city.

Emily in Paris takes up similar themes, but with far less interesting results. Its heroine admits to being lonely, too, and finding Paris more difficult than expected, but stumbles into friendships and hook-ups with uncommon ease. After suffering through the first five episodes of Emily in Paris, in which the worst thing to befall Emily is a plumbing issue, I longed for Miller’s miserable expatriates in their crummy chambres.

I suspect that part of the reason American commentators on Twitter — where the show became a running joke — have bludgeoned Emily in Paris so relentlessly is because Emily looks a little too much like them, at their worst. She’s effusive, and ingenuous enough to be nearly mindless; her French coworkers look to be in the throes of a perpetual headache. (It’d be nice if Star let those expressions do most of the work, instead of lacing every conversation with snippy, half-baked repartee.) Worst of all, she’s hard-working, in the Girl Boss way, a young, doe-eyed entrepreneur whose understanding of feminism falls somewhere between second wave and Sheryl Sandberg. “Why is it le vagin and not la vagin?” she demands, referring to the French word for “vagina,” a grammar-agnostic inquiry she decides to turn into an ad campaign. (The English word “pussy,” though, makes her gasp.)

There is a little bit of the high-octane striver in every American who’s been exposed to the rhetoric of self-reliance and capitalist innovation, and who spends too much time self-broadcasting on social media. Our lives have value only if we make something of ourselves, and then do something for the world. For Emily, that something is pharmaceutical marketing, her specialty back in Chicago. “We marketed the heck out of that,” she says excitedly, about Merck’s high-priced diabetes drug. (If not for Collins’s deadpan, I could have credited Star with a bracing commentary on the gross venality of Big Pharma.)

In Emily in Paris, French people are underperforming capitalists who need pointers, which Emily is all too happy to supply. That means nixing her French coworkers’ ad campaign for a perfumer, which features a naked woman sauntering down the Pont Neuf: In Star’s alternative universe, the Parisian sensibility is also a glib, comically flat sensuality.

I’ll grant that French culture sometimes tips in this direction — the backlash to #BalanceTonPorc, the French equivalent of #MeToo, suggests as much — but scores of French books and films reveal a far more nuanced perspective on sex, one American art has always struggled to emulate. Here, though, it’s America that the French are supposed to copy, in the name of power and profit: Emily explains patiently that the ad’s obvious sexism will deter customers, and would never fly in the States. She’s right, of course, but sexism only bothers Emily when it stands in the way of making euros. Emily hardly seems to mind her male coworkers’ prickly, mean-spirited comments, or their charmless attempts at harassment (the perfume client sends her a lingerie set as a thank-you present). Such are the methods of American capitalism: Promise the consumer a perfected world in product form; ignore the broad inequities that make it impossible for that world to actually exist.

A show that uplifts American capitalism could hardly find a more fitting outlet than Netflix. Emily in Paris is a show designed to be memed, part of a profusion of slight, bland Netflix productions whose inanity makes them both an easy target for criticism and a reliable source of profits. Per the Netflix model, bad publicity is good because it entails buzzy conversation, which drives viewership: Hate watching counts just the same, or even more. (Viewers watching Emily in Paris ironically might end up watching more of the series than a casual user who toggles between shows.)

Worse yet, many critics explicitly support this cycle. The frequent response to shows like Emily in Paris is to reclaim them as stupid... but useful: soothing, escapist television for our chaotic present. In reality, there is very little that soothes about Emily in Paris, which plunks along like a car with a blown head gasket. As the series progressed, I just felt bad for Emily, who doesn’t form any serious connections with anyone she meets in Paris. Lovers, friends, and coworkers become props for her Instagram, or people to flatter and impress.

What I found most jarring about Emily in Paris is not its tackiness, nor its stilted dialogue and stale plotlines, but its total disinterest in character. No surprise from a show modeled after Sex and the City and Gossip Girl. (Emily gushes about the latter, a relic of the 2000s for American teens, to an older French person who happens to be a fan, too — one of many moments in the show that made me doubt whether Star has ever actually left America.) But at least those shows had wit and panache, and a playful approach to stereotype.

There’s a timely critique buried somewhere deep beneath Emily’s taffeta dresses and champagne dinners. France really does dislike outsiders, but it’s not Americans who are treated the worst. The French emphasis on secularity, tipping over into Islamophobia, and its distaste for the former colonies it once exploited, has produced the National Front — one of the most virulent right-wing parties in Europe. A widespread culture of fear and xenophobia seeps into most aspects of French life, even in liberal Paris. No one would expect Emily, in her expensive suits and handbags, to venture out into Paris’s banlieues, where many Parisians of North African origin live in poverty and segregation. Even the most well-informed tourists — people who would scoff at Emily’s travails — don’t step outside the Péripherique, the ring road that separates Paris from its suburbs.

For viewers interested in what lies beyond the Eiffel Tower, Maïmouna Doucouré’s film Cuties, also on Netflix, is a trenchant exploration of life on Paris’s margins, and the role sex and religious tradition play in a hostile, jingoistic country. It’s a shame that Netflix has thrown its weight behind Emily in Paris and neglected Cuties, which became the subject of a number of baseless conspiracy theories this fall, picked up by pundits on both the left and right.

Baguettes and berets sell; reality doesn’t.

Gloomy as it is about the lifestyles of uprooted Americans, We Are Who We Are also capitalizes on an exaggerated image of Europe: There’s a fetishistic edge to the show’s portrayal of a sexy, sun-drenched Italy. Even red military berets — not too different from Emily’s own — start to look a little chic in this light.

Europe, as depicted in these shows, will always scratch some collective itch for refinement, indulgence, ease: a refuge from the American grind. At some point, though, the tourist must come home, where nothing is gilded.

Our current circumstances have led to renewed calls for expatriation, which tend to follow any American disaster or upheaval. “Once this is over, I’m leaving America for good,” pundits declare, just as they did in 2016, and 2004, and 2001, and so on. But as both Emily in Paris and We Are Who We Are suggest, the pathologies America breeds in us are not so easy to leave behind. And the worlds to which we’d like to exile ourselves rarely resemble our own distorted visions of them. In our eyes, or on our Instagrams, these places are gleaming monuments to a history whose magnitude we can’t quite fathom, and to fantasies we blindly believe. Most people won’t make good on their promise to flee. And if they do? Perhaps Emily said it best: “I like Paris, but I’m not really sure it likes me.”

Sara Krolewski

is a writer and graduate student living in the East Village.

All contributions from Sara Krolewski

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