Americans can’t get enough of the glamour of Paris, whether in person, in literature, or on film. In their funny, fascinating (and beautifully photographed) new book How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are, filmmakers Audrey Diwan and Sophie Mas, both quintessentially elegant Parisiennes, teamed up with two friends, model Caroline de Maigret and writer Anne Berest, to analyze the charms of the Paris woman. We caught up with them to try to capture some of that secret formula of attitude and allure — and, naturally, talked a bit about French cinema as well.
Word & Film: Your book includes a list of essential Paris films, and for many people their impressions of Paris are shaped by Godard, Truffaut, et al. How do you think the real Paris compares to the film version?
Audrey Diwan and Sophie Mas: Paris is a city that both never changes and always changes — as Verlaine said, “never quite the same, nor completely another”! There is a kind of timelessness to its beauty, to its museum-like quality, full of old stones and wooden floors. And at the same time, it has a population that is mixing and modernizing, a nervous center that never stops moving.
What’s hard is to capture this Parisian soul, this energy that permeates from its inhabitants: They’re snobs but they’re generous, and always in a hurry! Truffaut got it, and so did Chris Marker (especially in “Le Joli Mai”). Jacques Audiard also follows in this tradition.
W&F: Does the city (and its women) inspire you as filmmakers? In what ways?
AD & SM: The city isn’t easy to film: grey, full of massive, imposing stones, and very weighted historically. The Parisienne, on the other hand, is a pure source of inspiration, in drama as well as comedy. She is someone who reinvents her own life, which makes her a good character for fiction: Full of paradoxes, surprises and ups-and-downs. She can snub a waiter and the next minute reproach him for being impolite. A week later she’ll probably be kissing him on both cheeks as she enters the café!
W&F: The book is very visual, with photography and design integrated with the writing. Was that always how you planned it? How do you see the words and images relating?
AD & SM: With the images, our goal was to cultivate a kind of poetry, avoiding literal explanations and tautology. The photographs are a mix of inspiration and intimate moments of our lives, captured by Caroline or sometimes taken from our own personal archives. Like notebooks of our lives.
W&F: I’m curious about how you write a book with four co-authors. How did the idea come about? Did you all contribute to both the words and images?
AD & SM: It was completely spontaneous — it really came out of a mix of laughter and serious conversion between friends! We’re four women who’ve known each other for a long time. One day we decided to give our take on what the Parisienne is. Everything came up quickly, both the ideas and the anecdotes. It was a joyful moment of creation — and a good pretext for drinking red wine and having fun.
W&F: The book is very funny but also quite poignant in places, and reflects a kind of pressure on young women to be thin, pretty, successful, confident. Do you think it’s hard to be a woman in Paris? How does Paris compare to other cities where you’ve lived?
AD & SM: If we compared Paris to a lot of places in the world, where unfortunately women’s rights aren’t respected, it would be tactless to complain. Even if France isn’t the most egalitarian country in the world, women do succeed in winning a lot of battles. What’s nice is that women are celebrated in France, and that’s even truer in Paris.
W&F: It’s also unusual to see a book that’s about style but is also honest about women’s “bad habits” and less appealing traits. Was it difficult to open up about things like parenting, jealousy, romantic mistakes, et cetera?
AD & SM: No, it was actually the opposite! It felt good to talk about our flaws; it had a cathartic function in our writing process. That’s what’s original about our book too. We talk about all our flaws; all women have insecurities about them. What we want to say is that if you’re aware of them, then you can turn them into positive things! It’s high time we started talking about these universal issues.
Also, there have been so many books on French women, saying we do things better — but it’s false, so false! We are like all the mothers in the world, we make mistakes and we feel bad; we’re like all lovers in the world, we’re jealous and sometimes insecure. We just wanted to share with others how we solve these issues for ourselves (or at least, how we try to solve them). We laughed so much drawing up our lists of bad habits. It’s good to laugh about yourself, and make others laugh. Parisian women have a reputation for being a little cold. It’s true. But there’s fire under the ice!