French things are not the fast track to sophistication
Traditionalists worry about the undue influence of American culture on Australia. Republicans stress about our British links. Hansonites panic about Muslims and Asians.
But it’s the French we should be keeping an eye on.
‘What French Women Know: About Love, Sex and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind’ is the latest book by American-in-Paris writer Debra Ollivier. In it, Ollivier decodes the French mystique, arguing French chicks are so sexy because they “don’t give a damn”.
While the Rhett Butler mantra is a nice antidote to the fussiness that usually accompanies life advice, the ‘What French Women Know’ is yet another example of our decidedly un-sexy obsession with turning Française.
Be it in food, fashion, life, lifestyle or love – “French” is held up as the ultimate form of existence and we are inundated with books telling us how to get there.
The best-known offender is ‘French Women Don’t Get Fat’, the 2004 non-diet bible by businesswoman Mireille Guiliano. But there’s plenty more – from ‘French Women Don’t Sleep Alone’ to ‘All You Need To Be Impossibly French’, ‘Fatale: How French Women Do It’ and ‘A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi: the Ideal Guide to Sounding, Acting and Shrugging Like the French’.
And that’s not even counting the surplus of expat books à la “my year in Provence speaking bad French to the locals”, “moving to France was funny because the French are so crazy” or “how I shacked up with a Frenchman, ooh la la”.
Our devotion to Frenchness doesn’t stop at self-help and armchair travel, however.
In 2005, Australia voted Amélie the second best film of all time - ahead of movies like Pulp Fiction, Casablanca and that all-Australian classic, The Castle.
We flock to the French Film Festival in increasing numbers each year. Some 98,000 attended the festival this year, up from the previous record of 83,000 in 2009. Over 100,000 of us have bought a copy of the unofficial soundtrack, ‘So Frenchy, So Chic’ to keep the vibe going.
We go crazy for any art exhibition that mentions Paris, France or a French art movement.
Apart from the record-breaking ‘Masterpieces from Paris’ at the National Gallery of Australia, exhibitions of Pissarro, Picasso, Degas, Cézanne and Monet have shown around Australia in recent years. This winter the National Gallery of Victoria - which held the previous attendance record with its 2004 exhibition ‘The Impressionists’ - will feature French painters from Frankfurt’s Städel Museum.
Last week, Arts Minister Peter Garrett argued on The Punch that the 476,000-odd attendees at the ‘Masterpieces from Paris’ is living proof Australians are “engaging in the arts”.
But when art critics like John McDonald call the exhibition “over-hyped” and the National Gallery is up to its eyeballs in French-inspired merchandise - from soap to champagne, coasters and frilly knickers - I’d say we are engaging in something else.
Our love of French things is not about cultural literacy. It’s about a sense that they are a fast track to sophistication and some sort of higher plane. How else could Chanel get away with flogging a perfume called “Beige” for $350?
Maybe we never got over the fact that the French rejected us in the 18th century. Maybe we’ve seen too many Sophie Marceau films and eaten too much unpasteurised cheese to be sensible about the matter.
We need a cold shower.
France is formidable. It’s not the most visited country in the world for nothing. The food is tasty, the language is like music and the countryside like Europe.
But La France translated into English is not “most magical happy land”. It just means “France” – and shouldn’t have a monopoly on existence or culture.
The France of stripy shirts and crème pâtissière is also the France trying to ban the niqab and burqa, where far-right politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen are never far from the political scene. And we’ll always have Mururoa Atoll.
Some would say France these days is positively off the boil. In a recent editorial, Le Parisien newpaper complained that French restaurants have been left out of San Pellegrino’s top ten restaurants in the world.
“We [France] had already been ... relegated each year to the depths of the Shanghai international universities ranking. Lost our leadership in wine exports and on the catwalks of haute couture. And now even our gastronomy, the jewel in the crown of French culture and lifestyle, no longer has the edge.”
Even without the whole nuke testing, country-in-decline stuff, we need to stop pandering to Frenchness because it is embarrassing.
Any French person will tell you that you can’t achieve effortless sophistication and Froggy élan through desperation - even if said desperation comes in the form of an oversized Degas print, the director’s cut of Amélie and fifty cans of duck fat.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…