when an American girl goes to Paris

Funny Face vs. Devil Wears Prada

Paris has been the most filmed city ever since the birth of motion pictures. It is not just any city, with a collection of museums, subways, theatres and cafes. It is a city of pleasure, the capital of revolution, the center of fashion and the axis of art where writers and musicians gather for joy, drama and illumination. It is the Mecca for artists and film makers at all ages, the birthplace of influential art schools and events, the fountain with assorted aesthetic inspirations. It is a unique yet universal city, with lots of enthusiastic followers and parodies but none would be the same or even alike. On the big screen, when an American girl goes to Paris, it won’t be a random trip; rather, there’ll always be something chemical, whimsical, or even magical. The girl is baptized in Paris by its glamour, landmarks, and taste. Paris serves as a catalyst for romance and her transformation: stumbling forward the road never short of trouble and temptation, she becomes more mature with a better knowledge of herself.

  1. 1.     What’s beneath these films?

Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1957) and Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006), though shot half a century apart, have a lot in common: both use Paris as a climax setting, both relate to an influential fashion magazine and the industry as a whole, both depict a literary American Cinderella turning into an iconic belle who initially scorns at the fashion industry but then works for a strong-willed and self-sufficient sort of ‘dragon lady’, encounters a much sophisticated male seducer but ultimately returns to the seemingly ordinary true love.

Their common grounds end here; now let’s take a close-up at the differences:

1. Funny Face is a musical based on a Broadway show while Devil Wears Prada is a comic drama adapted from a cosmopolitan best-seller. Consequently, the former contains a series of songs echo the plots with a shy and self-conscious shopkeeper in a bookstore while the latter has a much faster pace in a new millennium featuring a SMART woman: sensitive, modest, ambitious, rational, and tough.

2. Jo in Funny Face is accidentally chosen for Quality magazine’s new season model due to the still photographer’s belief that she’d make a refreshing representation of the magazine’s ideal woman with spirit, intelligence and elegance while Andy in Devil Wears Prada chooses her own job in Runway magazine to be an assistant, hoping to be a reporter someday: Jo takes no initiative in her life as she is chosen, or more specifically, ‘forced’ into the industry and she eventually falls in love with what she used to ridicule; Andy, instead, chooses to work at the magazine and chooses to leave in her heyday as she realizes rules of the fashion jungle: in a velvet glove, there is an iron hand – a revelation which promotes her to pursue her real dream: to be a writer in the newspaper.

3. Jo dreams of going to Paris because she eagerly wants to meet her male idol; Andy fights for the chance to Paris as it would be recognition of her job well-done and it will be a chance to broaden her vision and advance her career. That is to say, Jo’s Paris dream is more about a gendered inspiration while Andy’s is merely about her own present and future, regarding more about female independence and self-sufficiency.

4. The seducer is a French philosopher in FF while in DWP, he is an American columnist. It is interesting to see the shift of power: from Frenchness to Americanization, from serious philosophy to daily column. It is a shift from highbrow elite culture to grassroots power, a result of the 1960s revolutions.

5. The French seducer not only fails in his attempt to make a pass at Jo: as much as she is excited being invited to his house, she feels extremely humiliated and disillusioned when he tries to touch her; the American seducer does succeed in bringing Andy into bed with smooth talk, wine and the romantic atmosphere in Paris, but she slams the door at him when he calls her “baby”: over the last 50 years, women’s attitude toward sex changes – no more slaves to conventions, illusions or male dominance, they can afford to be open and remain sober after an overnight tenderness.

6. Jo is a natural fit for the cover girl whose beauty was buried among books and gets discovered by a photographer. She does not need to control her weight to be presented on the magazine. In fact, she does not even appreciate publications like fashion magazines: “it is chichi, and an unrealistic approach to self-impressions as well as economics.” When she finally converts herself into the frames, all she needs to do is to walk down the stairs, to run with a bunch of balloons, to fish without knowing how to fish and to give a big big smile – she doesn’t have to make much effort to be the one who will be looked at, read and desired. She is an innocent girl with no family backgrounds introduced or any close friends in sight, ready to be shaped, polished and exposed.

Fifty years passes, Andy is not so “lucky” as she needs to go on a strict diet, forgets about her favorite food and flavor, quits her old clothes, bags and shoes, turns away from her family, confidants and even her boyfriend to keep her first job. The FF story is accidental as Jo’s beauty might not be shown to the public if the magazine crew chooses to enter another bookstore while the DWP story looks incidental as Andy, though not material, is competitive, courageous and convincing: as a top university graduate, she deserves a job that “a million girls would kill for” to reveal her ability and aspiration. She makes choices decisively with an endless number of sacrifices until the boss Miranda oversteps her bottom line: the conscience, the work ethics – Miranda used to stand for an image she refuses to identify with verbally while conforms and admires in heart. However, the fact that Miranda trades Nigel’s job opportunity which he’s been expecting for eighteen years for her own career validation in the industry irritates Andy and ignites the dynamite for her to quit the job. Jo can’t help falling in love with the one who discovers her beauty and wants a share of her empathy while Andy has a choice to leave or stay in the magazine which means she dives into an alienating fashion world and manages to shake off its fascination and her recent obsession – she has control over her life.

7. The driving force of the fashion magazine intensifies and there’s an overwhelming product placements in DWP. In FF, the magazine is powerful enough to influence people’s choice of color and style as we can see from the Editor Maggie’s declaration: “Here is our theme. Here is our answer. Pink. I want dresses made up in this pink. Babs, take this to Kaiser Delmont. I want shoes and stockings in this colour. Laura, everything goes pink! I want the whole issue pink. I want the whole country pink! Lettie, take an editorial. ‘To the women of America…’ No, make it ‘To the women everywhere.’ Banish the black, burn the blue, and bury the beige.” In DWP, such a power is delivered in a more forceful while invisible way:

“’This… stuff’? Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent… wasn’t it who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.”

Miranda’s charisma and eloquence surpass Maggie’s as instead of singing mottos or slogans, she coolly analyzes how a decision made by professionals can affect a whole world’s fashion sense and products. Just have a look at the pervasive commercialization, product placements in this film: cell phones, fashion brands, hotels, wine…

8. In FF, the only competition for Jo is much understated: the current major model of the Quality magazine fails to deliver an intellectual touch besides her physical beauty while Jo accidentally emerges as an unexpected substitute. In DWP, however, there is an on-going catfight in the office, dramatic and comic: a fight for position, honor and capability. Emily, Miranda’s senior assistant, keeps mocking at and making things difficult for Andy, feels the threats from an evolving Andy, frustratingly gets hit by a car and reluctantly accepts the fact that she is not the one who’ll be flying with Miranda to Paris in the annual top notch fashion gathering. The competition or ‘hatred’ doesn’t disappear until Andy, already quit the job and made a very good impression upon a newspaper editor in a new job interview, calls her and says that she, Emily, can have all the dresses from the Paris summit – this conversation leads to a final reconciliation, though Emily doesn’t thank Andy over the phone by preserving her pride, she does say to Andy’s successor that “You have some very large shoes to fill. I hope you know that.” One chooses to leave, the other chooses to stay. The film does not draw a line between good and evil. It’s just about the ability to choose, the freedom to choose.

9. The status and portion of Paris change over the past decades.

In FF, Paris takes a large part in the story with sparkling shooting locations. Studios catered for the audience’s longing for the Europe as they know: “The dream of every middle-class American, as we know, is to salute the old continent.” Paris, to the potential travelers, stands out for its ubiquitous artistic trails and rich historical monuments. This film is like a love letter dedicated to Paris, together with a chain of snapshots of the remarkable sites: the rue de la Paix, the Champs-Élysées, Montmartre, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the fountains at Versailles and so on. “The film does not emphasize the tourist’s Paris but rather attempts to portray a more authentic ‘insider’s’ perspective on the city: its parks, thoroughfares, and open spaces.”

In DWP, New York, with its distinguishing skyscrapers, huge posters, and busy streets, takes over Paris as the major setting where the girl’s metamorphosis takes place, be it her relationship, her acquisition of fashion or her social crash course – to her, Paris is a symbol, a reward yet New York is the spot where things actually happen. Paris is still the destination of the pilgrimage that designers, models and fashion fanatics swarm towards, yet ironically, DWP only has very few location shootings in Paris, the hotel scenes were all filmed in the U.S. “The crew was in Paris for only two days, and used only exteriors.” One of the leading actresses Meryl Streep didn’t even go to Paris.

In short, if Funny face is a modern fairy tale, then Devil Wears Prada is a contemporary reality show. Interestingly enough, Anna Wintour, whom DWP is loosely based on, showed up in the film’s New York premiere, wearing Prada. In the new century, life sometimes resembles a Truman Show – with no need to rehearse, every minute could be recorded into the audio-visual archive.

Some points to ponder on:

  • What is the significance of Paris as place of transcendence in the above films? How is modern art incorporated in the girl’s evolution?
  • What is fashion’s role in feminine self-transformation?
  • How are the external beauty and inner value of women presented in these two films? What are changes of the girl’s priority over the last fifties years?
  • What are the representations of an American girl coming to Paris in French films? Are they similar, opposite, imaginative or delusional?

I was really excited when one night, the idea stroke me that how much resemblance these two films bear and the changes of certain twists over the years and wrote the above words. After reading, Dr. Bo Florin was kind enough to point out a problem of the above analysis: DWP is not a re-make of FF, so is it really relevant to draw a comparison between the two? That makes me think after the initial excitement...


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