Susie Rushton: Is Woody Allen peddling clichés?


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Parisians are pretty tolerant, I found myself thinking last Thursday evening, as I travelled the Gare du Nord to Place de la Concorde in a cramped, foetid and dimly-lit carriage of the Metro. I'd noticed the expressions of two well-cushioned ladies sitting opposite, who were smiling broadly despite the close atmosphere and even more invasive presence of other passengers. Then they started talking in the language that rings around the streets of Paris at this time of year – not French, but English, spoken with a Midwestern American accent made giddy with excitement.

No wonder they looked so cheerful. A ride on the authentically grotty Paris Metro, surrounded by picturesque-looking tramps and posters advertising blockbuster exhibitions at the Louvre: these women were living their European dream. I don't visit often, but each time I do go to Paris, particularly in the summer months, I'm reminded of how Americans view the city as a one-stop-shop of the Old World. Sure, US tourists also visit London. But I sense that they tend to look on our cityscape with an indulgent, slightly pitying eye: those stumpy skyscrapers, narrow roads and stingy plates of food...

Paris, though, has them in raptures. In particular, those places deemed typically Parisian half a century ago, when Gene Kelly tripped the narrow pavements in An American in Paris. Parts of St Germain in particular feel like the 51st state. Not all the city is on the US tourist route. You don't see Americans on the RER, the cross-town rail service even less pleasant than the Metro. The designer boutiques of rue St Honoré are peopled with Japanese and French shoppers (you can get YSL in Texas). And anywhere that Paris's multicultural population is more obvious is not on the trail.

Now Woody Allen has made a movie – Midnight in Paris – that may or may not be a satire of the fossilised view of Paris favoured by his compatriots. It could be that by making a dramatic travelogue of such places as the bookstalls of Quai de la Tournelle and Maxim's restaurant, the Musée Rodin and Shakespeare & Co (all locations in the movie) Allen is making a sly comment on the misplaced romantic notions of the city.

The film, in which Allen's alter ego considers leaving behind his conventional American life for a more thrilling European existence, is already showing in America but not yet in the UK, so I can't tell whether the use of all those clichéd Parisian places is ironic or not. But the film will no doubt encourage yet more Americans to visit.

In the meantime French retailers are trying to accommodate the swooning tourists. I suspect the smart Latin Quarter boulangerie Poilâne, and the macaron shop Ladurée, now pack their delicate biscuits in pretty, possibly 747-proof, boxes with their many American customers in mind. "But can you get this through customs?" was the English-language refrain I heard in these places, as New Yorkers attempted to smuggle some genuine French patisserie back home. How the customs officials at JFK must look forward to arrival flights from Paris.

Manual labour might make Heidi happier

It's not clear with whom the mildly famous American blonde Heidi Montag is in competition, but maybe her shrink can work that out. The 24-year-old has already undergone 10 plastic surgery operations to "perfect" herself, which is depressing in itself. Now she tells us that for the past two months her exercise regime has begun each day at 5am.

So far, so Hollywood – Jennifer Aniston is "said" to wake at 3am for a two-hour run before early shoots. Heidi, bless her, just keeps sweating throughout the whole day, which could be because she doesn't actually have any work to do. Either way, she throws in the towel at 7pm, clocking up a ridiculous 14 hours of "running a lot ... and weights", a regime that most Olympians would deem excessive. If obesity in Western society is caused by sedentary lifestyles – we were all much thinner when we worked the land – maybe what Heidi needs is not the privilege of luxury gyms and top surgeons, but to till the fields, or whatever its modern equivalent might be. Is it so hard to imagine that she might be happier that way, too?

The character flaw that we all still applaud

Two whole weeks of it to come in SW19; not just tennis, but unabashed competitiveness. Although it's not polite to pursue a rivalry openly, it is a trait that society applauds nonetheless, particularly in Western capitalist nations (even though some heavyweight economic thinkers have dismissed the idea that competitiveness is what makes the global economy go round). It is a curious human affliction. I say affliction because it is a thirst that is never quenched. Why will both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who already have more than enough money and titles to put them into the history books, continue to play until they physically are no longer able? Away from sport, the urge can express itself in the least likely candidates. This is when it gets even less palatable. What else, for instance, is driving the happily-married and presumably otherwise content former Mrs Sarkozy from planning a roman à clef that she hopes, distract attention from mother-to-be Carla Bruni-Sarkozy next year?

Competitiveness is a subject that deserves more examination – and more self-examination. I have just finished reading Jonathan Franzen's excellent Freedom. Patty Berglund, the anti-heroine, is a lifelong competer. A basketball player in college who never quite loses the desire to get one over her rivals – anybody from a flirtatious neighbour to her own husband – Patti is a portrait of the modern impulse to win at the expense of all others, and a sharp antidote to this fortnight's frenzy of winning and losing.       

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