Named after the French author who was so overwhelmed by a trip to the Basilica of Santa Croce that he became quite trembly and light-headed, Stendhal Syndrome was first recognised in the 1970s as a state of euphoria brought about by being in Florence. It has since come to describe visitors and tourists who are deranged by the beauty they find in any foreign land. Travellers to Paris are especially prone to Stendhal madness, recklessly embarking on impulsive romantic relationships, dancing on moonlit bridges and putting on berets.
I’d like to think that Stendhal Syndrome might be a suitable diagnosis for Darren Star’s latest creation, Emily in Paris, a new Netflix drama that follows a Midwestern twenty-something from Chicago to Paris, where she goes to work for a snooty fashion branding company for a year, and promptly starts exhibiting behaviours that to others might seem mad. Such as nursing the delusion that every man in France (either staggeringly attractive or unspeakably smarmy, for the record) is desperate to seduce her. Or that it might be considered normal to wear a lacy crop top to go jogging along the Seine. Or the conviction that the world is anxiously waiting for another American in Paris to share pictures of themselves eating croissants on their social media feed.
Star, the 59-year-old writer, director and producer who created Beverly Hills, 90210 and the man responsible for bringing Sex and the City on to the small screen, is no stranger to an audience’s most elementary needs. Emily in Paris is the latest in a tranche of dramas embracing one of Hollywood’s most enduring plot lines: the ingénue who pitches up in the City of Love (see also: Before Sunset, Marie Antoinette and, naturally, An American in Paris). It’s about the culture clash: French people are prissy bitches and their plumbing’s really sucky, while Emily (played by Lily Collins) is just as wholesome and wide-eyed as Audrey Hepburn is in Funny Face. It’s about being a fish out of water: Emily turns up to work at 7.30am, while her French colleagues rock up three hours later. It’s about grappling with the inherent sexism of a language you don’t actually speak a word of: “OMG, that’s insane that you call it le vagin?” In short, it’s as ripe with clichés as a slab of smelly Brie.
Judging by the widespread condemnation the show has received already, it’s almost certain that this “Sex and the Cité” will be monstrously successful. I well remember the rancour felt towards Carrie Bradshaw’s posse when they debuted in the late 1990s, and I have few doubts that young Emily will win people round again. The show ticks all the Darren Star™ checkboxes that his acolytes hold dear. For starters, she loves fashion. Emily arrives in Paris with a designer wardrobe that suggests she must be the secret heir of John D Rockefeller, and her look, created by Patricia Field, who also did the SATC costumes, has stuck to a tried and tested formula of size zero dresses, pin-high stilettos, garish colours and, bewilderingly, ballerina tulles.
That his lead actresses appear to have escaped from a Disney film is typical of Star’s vision of femininity. But this time, Emily seems to have no vices except phone sex and Sancerre at breakfast, and — in a spirit of inclusivity that was scarily absent from his earlier programmes — she has been furnished with a Chinese friend.
Like Carrie Bradshaw, Emily is also building a career as her generation’s spokesperson — only, because of the times we live in, she’s using social media to air her views. Our heroine arrives in Paris preaching the benefits of Snapchat and Instagram to her French colleagues who are, naturally, chain-smoking technophobes — but ironically, her own followers only add up to a paltry 48. The programme’s title refers to her reinvention as an influencer and interlocutor for the expat’s view of Paris, one that includes posting pictures of pastry products and the city in the rain. By the ruthless standards of 2020, Emily’s posts are almost criminally basic, but she seems to have managed to go viral by episode three.
But while the major plot lines might have been written in the 1940s and the Frenchies are routinely cast as vain, preening and parochial once again, I’ll probably plough on with Star’s new Paris project. For starters, it provides the tiniest promise of escapism from a world currently devoid of real-life entertainment. And I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for Star’s ability to essay a version of womanhood in which promiscuity, bossiness and shopaholicism are depicted as qualities to be celebrated rather than failings to disdain.
And then there’s Paris, looking as sparkling, beautiful and syrupy delicious as one remembers, and upstaging Emily in every frame. Watching from my sofa, on another rain-lashed night in Covid-city, the sweeping shots of Paris all twinkly-lit and gleaming like marble, was quite enough to overwhelm me with a sadness that I might not behold such beauty for myself again. Hashtag Stendhal by proxy — it’s a thing now. Maybe Emily can bang that on her Insta-feed.
Email Jo at email@example.com
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published