On two enduring roles of Parisian escapes in the American imagination.
Until September (1984), likely best known as the film that offered director Richard Marquand a serious change of pace one year after Return of the Jedi (1983), tells the story of an American traveler to Paris (played by Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Karen Allen) who misses her return flight to the States and finds herself stranded in the city (until September, natch) while she awaits a new travel visa. As you would expect, her story takes an unexpected turn, one driven by a chance encounter with a wealthy, married French banker (played by French actor and comedian Thierry Lhermitte). Despite their best intentions, the two fall under the spell of the City of Lights (or perhaps the more practical magic of a romantic comedy plot), and find themselves embarking on a love affair, with each character changing quite a bit as a result of this new, unfamiliar relationship.
If that sounds quite a bit like the plotline of the Meg Ryan/Kevin Kline romantic comedy French Kiss (1995), I’d say that’s true and far from a coincidence (although the fact that French Kiss was directed by another Star Wars veteran, Lawrence Kasdan, likely is coincidental). In both films, a buttoned-up American (yes, Ryan is living in Canada at the start of French Kiss, but she’s still Meg Ryan so she’s an American!) finds an unexpected and beneficial escape from her everyday life in a romantic relationship that feels distinctly Parisian, not only because it’s with a Frenchman (although oui) but also because of the very nature of the city and its imagery and mythos. A very similar story, with the genders reversed, plays out in the recent Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris (2011), in which screenwriter Owen Wilson escapes from his relationship with his stereotypically materialistic American fiancé (Rachel McAdams) by literally time traveling back into Paris’s most romanticized era and culture (the artistic and cultural world of the Roaring 20s).
Such Parisian escapes go far back in the American imagination, as traced with particular clarity by historian David McCullough in his book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (2011). But at the same time, I would differentiate McCullough’s subjects (who are mostly artists and writers) and Wilson’s character (who is also a writer and joins an artistic community through his time travels) from the characters played by Allen and Ryan. Wilson’s writer traveled to Paris because he loved its iconic, mythologized identity, as did many of McCullough’s travelers; for them, the escape was expected, and the life-changing effects it produced sought-out and hoped-for. Whereas for Allen and Ryan’s characters, Paris and the romances and changes they found there were entirely unexpected and unplanned, indeed represented a drastic shift in their lives and journeys. There’s romance in both kinds of escapes, but something particularly romantic about a life-altering place that takes us by surprise.
January Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Travel stories or writing you’d highlight?