French Kiss is one of the stranger films in both Meg Ryan and Lawrence Kasdan’s oeuvres. On the face of it, this is a breezy romcom, in which American Kate, played by Ryan, travels to Paris to recover her ex-boyfriend Charlie, played by Timothy Hutton, only to fall in love with aristocrat Luc, played by Kevin Kline. The style of the film is pure mid-90s Eurochic, with Ryan clad in funky sunglasses and sporting a tomboy haircut, and Luc drawing on the zany residues of the Cinema Du Look. Most of the film takes place outside, and feels slightly overstimulated as a result. The world of France moves a little too quickly, especially since Kate and Luc tend to walk at high speed, like a caffeinated American memory of older New Wave wanderings.
This produces a kind of caper romance, in which Luc simultaneously cons Kate, invites her to join his cons, and instructs her on how to con Charlie back into her life. These overlapping cons find their natural climax on the Riviera, and yet by the time the film arrives at Cannes, it has started to feel like we are trapped in an airbrushed fantasy of a French film as well. For this is France as a simulation of itself, the hypermediated Paris of Paris Syndrome. Indeed, so simulated does this France feel that the film begs the question of why it’s even necessary to travel there at all, rather than experience it vicariously from the vantage point of the United States, as most of Kasdan’s original audience must have done. Perhaps that’s why there’s such an inordinate focus on the process of getting to France here. Not only does Kate meet Luc on the plane to Paris, like a preview of the fantasy she’s about to inhabit, but she has a chronic fear of flying, which means that the airline trip is the most high-stakes part of the narrative. Luc first romances Kate by telling her that this fear of flying is simply a “fear of life,” while her most resonant experience of France is the stone cottage she imagines to “ground” her fear.
Even in the early parts of the film, then, Kasdan suggests that Paris has become the emblem of a new kind of virtual tourism that makes physical travel inconvenient and unnecessary. The first scene presents us with what appears to be a plane taking off, only to reveal that this is a simulation that Kate has paid for as part of a program devoted to managing her fear of flying. Yet the film that ensues suggests that this entire conundrum could be resolved by remaining in the realm of the virtual for tourism itself. This corresponds to Kate’s own unusual status as an American living in Canada, and awaiting confirmation of Canadian citizenship. With this French exclave so close at hand, visiting the “real” France seems downright reckless, especially since Kate isn’t supposed to travel when her papers are pending. Sure enough, declaring herself as “a soon-to-be ex-American Canadian” holds no traffic with embassies in Paris, casting her adrift in a new world that doesn’t depend on traditional physical boundaries.
In that sense, French Kiss often feels like Kasdan coming to terms with the emergence of a new virtual sphere in America by transplanting it onto Paris, a space that has perhaps been visited vicariously by more Americans than any other. Curiously, and for all the superficial French exoticism, this produces a rampant Francophobia that curdles the romcom geniality as it proceeds. Whereas most Hollywood films about France linger on the food, Kate can’t stand French cuisine, partly because she’s lactose intolerant, and partly because she seems to have centuries-old preconceptions about what this cuisine actually involves, going so far as to reduce it all to horse meat at one point. It’s no surprise she catapults into a dessert cart when she’s trying to impress her ex-husband, nor that cultural consumption, more generally takes on a bitter edge. Watching French Kiss is like going on a rained-out holiday, as icon after icon is denatured by Kate’s frustration, most notably when she’s trying to locate the Eiffel Tower from a reflection that ends up disclosing her ex-boyfriend proposing to his new wife.
While Kate and Luc do end up together, and forge an uneasy American-French alliance, they have to board a plane back to the United States to do so. Similarly, although Luc turns out to possess an idyllic vineyard in the French countryside, the most salient feature for Kate is a real-life version of the stone cottage that kept her grounded during her fear of flying – that is, the cottage that allowed her to pretend she had never left America to begin with. And the paradox of French Kiss is that it effectively ends in America, never leaves America, and can never leave America, enslaved to a hyperreal image machine that has airbrushed France out of existence entirely. Sometimes Kasdan’s Francophobia feels like a way of registering that process, thereby deflecting a deeper Americaphobia, and sometimes it feels like a way of challenging France to break through the seamless façade of the film itself. Yet neither option works, torturing the film into both a farewell kiss to France and the reason for its vanishing.