Old World without end

There was a time when Americans saw themselves as innocents abroad in Europe. European film-makers had other ideas. Now US directors are trying to reclaim the lovable geek. By Sheila Johnston
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Americans in Europe: are they innocents abroad or cynical despoilers? Even in period pieces seeming to turn on the traditional contrast between American guilelessness and European decadence. When Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers was serialised recently for television, that tension, certainly, seemed at first to underpin the story: a group of high-spirited New Yorkers "invading" Britain at the beginning of the century in search of titled husbands - a trade-off between American brass and English class - and inevitably coming to grief as their mates proved less than ideal. But as the series progressed, the line between victims and exploiters began increasingly to blur.

It was probably after the Second World War that the American as villain put in increasing appearances, certainly in films made this side of the Atlantic, into full-blown villains. The Third Man (1949) fields both types in one film: the (Canadian) writer, played by Joseph Cotton, who arrives in Allied-occupied Vienna and, on the other side, Orson Welles' iconic Harry Lime, a racketeer cynically peddling dodgy penicillin at the price of human lives.

French film-makers were still in love with US pop culture, both in their gangster movies, heavily influenced by the American srie noir, and, later in their young critics' rediscovery of neglected Hollywood directors in the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinma. But the wind was changing as the vnements of 1968 made them take a more political perspective: in that same year, Jean-Jacques Sevran-Schreiber's bestseller The American Challenge, warned against the economic invasion of Europe: France had moved a long way from Democracy in America (1835), De Tocqueville's famous account of the country as a role model.

In Wim Wenders's bleak 1977 thriller The American Friend, Dennis Hopper's weary, manipulative art forger asked "What's wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?" The film's emphatic answer was: actually quite a lot. Wenders's much-quoted remark at the time that "the Americans had colonised our unconscious," referred in the mid-Seventies specifically to his own country: a West Germany that had lost confidence in itself after Hitler. Twenty years later, as the Gatt squabbles rumble on to nobody's satisfaction, it's a familiar refrain all across the continent. By 1980, even the romance was ripe for revisionism. In Bad Timing, when two Americans fall in love in Vienna it turns very sour indeed: Theresa Russell and Art Garfunkel's obsessive fling curdled quickly into necrophilia and attempted suicide.

In the Fifties, Hollywood was fond of using the Old World in a steady wave of escapist movies: An American in Paris (1951); Roman Holiday (1953); Three Coins in the Fountain (1954); Summer Madness (1955) - there, tourists and expatriates could enjoy a romantic dalliance well away from the moral handcuffs likely to be clapped on them back home. And, today, a new wave of US films, both independent movies and mainstream studio pictures, appear to be fighting a rearguard action against the Ugly American by reviving this kind of European romance.

Perhaps the most intriguing and unusual example looks like being James Ivory and Ismail Merchant's forthcoming historical drama Jefferson in Paris. Here, the man who later became the President of the United States (played in the film by Nick Nolte) spends five years in the City of Light in the period leading up to the French Revolution: the political ructions become a backdrop which enables his illicit affairs with a painter's wife and with a black slave (although he fails to translate sexual licence into action for human rights).

But most of these films don't have much of a critical spin: in the wholly formulaic Only You, Marisa Tomei flew to Italy in pursuit of her man; Meg Ryan will soon find hers in France in the forthcoming Paris Match. (France and Italy remain for many directors the traditional countries of choice.)

Perhaps because their male Americans are immune to the attractions of the Latin lover, perhaps because as independents they feel required to seek out a slightly less obvious setting, Whit Stillman and Richard Linklater take on Spain and Austria respectively in Barcelona and Before Sunrise: in the latter film, Ethan Hawke is a type of tourist rarely seen in film, though not in life: a backpacker, bumming around on an Interail pass, so broke that he can't afford a hotel room for the night. He squats at the bargain basement end of the range: a child of the generation which invaded Europe on $5 a day.

In Barcelona, which is set in Spain in the mid-Eighties against a backdrop of local resentment at the US presence in the Mediterranean, the two main characters, a sales executive, the other a Navy officer, could both have been viewed, potentially, as freebooting Americans, economically and militarily. In the event, however, they turn out to be naive, rather vulnerable types, and being constantly outmanoeuvred by people they think they control: the innocent American is staging something of a comeback in unexpected places.

Even his oafishness has turned into the object of indulgent amusement: Hawkes' inability to speak any foreign language is a running joke in Before Sunrise. There has been a sea-change since The Accidental Tourist (1988), in which William Hurt's buttoned-up writer prepares travel guides for businessmen abroad who want to pretend that they're still in America: when he cautions against the deviant and suspicious Big Macs on sale on the Champs Elyses, it was another droll proof of his dullness and timidity.

Quentin Tarantino recently recycled the same McCulture joke in Pulp Fiction (1994), in which John Travolta's sleazeball gangster reveals that virtually the sole insight he gleaned into European life while living in Amsterdam was that a Quarter Pounder was known there as a Royale; by now the lack of curiosity about the host country has become virtually a source of pride.