Within the first three minutes of the pilot episode of Whit Stilman's new series The Cosmopolitans, Jimmy (an American expat played by Adam Brody) spots a soignée American acquaintance in a Paris café. Vicky (Chloe Sevigny) comes over to chat. After one of the young men shares a romantic sob story, Vicky is incredulous. "You guys have girlfriends with names like Clémence?"
"Yeah. Why wouldn't we?" the young man shrugs. "We live here; we're Parisians."
When their paths cross again later at a party, one of their gang says she has been in the city for six weeks. "Oh, so you're not yet Parisian," Vicky deadpans with all the smug, self-deluded sarcasm that only an U.S. fashion journalist living in France can muster. "That takes months."
If only being Parisian were as simple as geography, rather than the cultivation of a certain state of mind and approach to life. That has often been my issue with the mythology disseminated in how-to book after how-to book – just one paradox among many. (Another: the Parisian woman as Hermès scarf ninja or Gauloises-smoking gamine who flits between Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore). It's tired propaganda, as surely as the women at the party in The Cosmopolitans all wearing winsome little black dresses.
I'm not the only one who's fed up. Audrey Diwan, one of the four authors of How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style and Bad Habits, agrees. Toting a capacious black Prada bag and sporting a tangled but shiny brunette mane, Diwan was in Toronto promoting her work as screenwriter on the Jean Dujardin thriller The Connection at the Toronto International Film Festival. Her 48 hours of interviews, she explains, will be fuelled by a few dozen big coffees before she flies home to her three kids in Paris's Montmartre district. "I'm a complete cliché – it's like Amélie!" she jokes of her arrondissement as we share an outdoor table at a downtown café.
Nonetheless – or perhaps because of her quaint French neighbourhood – "we were tired of the concept," Diwan explains on behalf of her co-writers, a trio of accomplished thirtysomething Parisiennes. "To be honest, we were laughing a little bit about everything else we've read about the Parisian girl. We never get fat? Seriously? I do, from time to time."
I don't know if it was this kind of myth-busting that won me over about How to Be Parisian. Perhaps it was the book's glossary of the only 15 expressions anyone needs in the city (among them: boire un verre) or that the foursome's list of essential Paris films supplants the usual suspects – there's no Gigi, no Funny Face – with suggestions such as Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers or Yves Robert's An Elephant Can Be Extremely Deceptive.
Lately, the Parisian state of mind is being revised and, just like Chanel did a century ago, commodified by cultural exports such as Isabel Marant and Charlotte Gainsbourg, both of whom reject the enduring and arguably anachronistic bon chic bon genre stereotype. Indeed, one of the earliest prescriptions in How to Be Parisian's aphorisms ("to be read out loud every night before going to bed. Even when inebriated.") is to "wear a black bra under your white blouse, like two notes on a sheet of music." That's precisely what Gainsbourg does throughout Benoît Jacquot's new romantic melodrama 3 Coeurs.
But the philosophy that created the simple Parisian look still often seems to get lost in translation – to make tresses look artfully dishevelled, for instance, the American impulse is to use products, whereas Diwan suggests, in true Parisian fashion, just not washing your hair. "And if you do, just get out of the shower, don't dry them and go straight to your rendezvous." What underpins page after page of insouciance, Diwan says, is feminism cultivated from childhood. "Growing up a girl, if you spend too much time taking care of the hair and showing the world you take care of the hair, you won't read books. That's a bit exaggerated, but I think our mothers gave us that."
How to Be Parisian isn't so much a guide as an elliptical explanation, loosely and idiosyncratically structured with illustrations, instructions for parlour games, graphics and photographs (of the authors themselves, and interiors of their homes). "We've been through the usual in lots of magazines and books and wanted it to be something more personal," Diwan says. "To do something a little sincere." Even the "bad habits" of the subtitle. A section on snobbism encourages embracing it. "I love being a snob!" Diwan laughs. "It's about playing roles. And life is more interesting when you actually act as if you were in a movie. You have some attitude. Sometimes you're sad – I love crying in the streets, to let people know that I'm sad, you know? …
"We wanted the book to be generational and we believe that a lot of these things [myths about all Frenchwomen being slim, or preternaturally chic] aren't really Parisian at all," she adds. So where do author Mireille Giuliano and her French Women Don'ts come from?
"I have no idea," Diwan says ruefully. "For us, she is a complete stranger. I don't know if it's not true, but it's certainly not me. We try to balance the night when we drink too much, eat too much and then the next morning have to get the kids up for school. We don't think there is a genetic specialness to French girls."
As we wind down, Diwan notices a French colleague walking past the café and calls her over. She is the film's Parisian distributor and is dressed in layers of black, including a tapered style of what are still track pants, which Diwan's book says are verboten (even in the privacy of one's home). When I call Diwan on it after her friend leaves, she replies that the woman isn't so much Parisian as international.
And that lovely onscreen Parisienne who catches Adam Brody's eye in The Cosmopolitans, with the messy blond hair and slightly wonky teeth? Turns out she's from Vancouver.