Thursday, September 18, 1986

Vive la Poupée!

Written in collaboration with Valérie Moniez for European Travel & Life, 1986

The new word among the poupées in Paris this year is “somptueux”—sumptuous. It may apply to an art exhibit, or the latest Duras novel, or an up-and-coming couturier’s new line. It is the equivalent of New York’s “terrible” (what used to be called, approvingly, only “bad”), but given specific social status, the poupée seal of approval. La luxe is in vogue, hence there is a corresponding inflation in the meanings of words. For a poupée, even her tea may be somptueux.

The poupées themselves are somptueuses. They probably invented it. In a highly class-conscious society, they represent a veritable army, yet all this army’s soldiers believe they are unique. The essence of a poupée is that she refuses to recognize herself as one. It is part of the art.

How do you recognize a poupée? She is absolutely immaculate, dressed appropriately, with great inspiration, for the exact place and exact moment when you see her. (This, of course, implies hours of preparation.) She carries her beauty like a public accent. Her looks alone can make you feel you’re eavesdropping on her; you are not. She is almost certainly between twenty-five and thirty-five—older, she’ll have begun changing her approach. Younger cannot qualify. A poupée (which means, literally, “doll”) should not be confused with the twenty year-old tidbits so vivid in American fantasy, strolling Paris’ bridges—though they may, with real work, grow into poupées. A poupée is not a girl, she is a woman. If she’s with a man, he is wealthier than you will ever be.

She is probably not as beautiful as she seems; these women are not model-types. Their beauty is not nearly so fragile, so evanescent. As one poupée told me (discussing all the others), “What’s the miracle? Any woman who isn’t fat can be beautiful.  It’s not difficult. If it were, she couldn’t do it. You can cover up anything with clothes, makeup, manners.”

What are they after, the poupées? In the States we don’t really have their equivalent. They are most emphatically not mistresses; their ultimate function is that of a wife. These are women in search of great financial security. They want to be wives, but they do not seek a life of sloth.

In fact, you see them hurrying around constantly, from club to exercise to tea to couturier. A poupée gives the opposite impression from one of those well-coiffed giraffes lurching along Madison Avenue in the upper 60s, shopping bag in hand, with the tired tolerance of somebody who has seen it all before—those women are full of empty time. A poupée seems to have no time at all, so fervently does she feel the active newness of life pressing on her.

Thus the immediate, clichéd American associations—the peroxide Vegas blonde of glycerine warmth, the ex-model turned Yuppie wife—do not carry. A poupée is never vulgar and never only decorative. They serve an extremely important function in the society: they connect. For there are always the grand diners to be planned.

This is an occupation in itself. To the Paris society in which the poupées move, the world of lawyers and bankers and international financial advisors and executives, these dinners are nearly everything, planned with a meticulousness that we in America associate with state dinners or convocations of the ridiculously wealthy. They are the equivalent of our “power lunches” but given a more sociable setting. The poupée’s function is to lubricate each aspect of the event for her man, not just by choosing the extra guests (besides the more important ones), or making culinary decisions. She must ensure that all the poupée-less men who have been invited will each have their men-less poupées.

What will they be expected to do at these diners? Beautify, for one; be enthusiastic, happy; say nothing of any consequence; discuss what latest marvel they have just experienced. It might be the current novel by the current author. One poupée will say, “It’s certainly her best.” Another will agree. The author might be, say, Francoise Sagan; it would not be Marguerite Yourcenar.

If you have somehow been invited to this diner, and like a typical rude American ask which other novels of that author the poupée has read, she will say, with slight dismissal, “I’m reading several at the moment.” You have made a bad move. She has not read any of the others; that is not her job. Her job is to be able to speak of the current only. Not for her Hugo, Baudelaire, Proust. Into the oubliette goes Stendhal. After the dinner she will certainly comment on your rudeness; a Parisian man would know better than to ask if she’d read any others.

This is not to say a poupée mustn’t know a great deal. She must be far ahead of the fashion magazines on the couturiers. (The popular ones this year among the poupées are Alaia, or perhaps Sonia Rykiel, whose lissome clothes demand a perfect body, of course.) And the way an intellectual has to have read Sartre or Camus, a poupée must know intimately certain great hotels of the world: the Plaza in New York, the Cipriani in Venice, La Mamounia in Marrakesh. At St. Tropez she must have a house, or friends’ houses, to stay at—one must not be incarcerated there with tourists.

The function of a poupée is to beautify and to link; her aim is to hold, to secure, her position. Married, poupées may have affairs, but always with others of the upper class, looking for a better situation in case their present man leaves them. Their men all know this; it is accepted implicitly.

Ask a poupée how she got that way and you will not get very far. Like most people who know exactly what they want and are well on the way to attaining it, she seems to have sprung full-grown from her own imagination. She might not be from Paris, but she certainly studied arts or letters at a Paris university—the Sorbonne, or L’École du Louvre. For a couple of years after, she worked at little jobs like public relations, or in a friend’s office, perhaps at a fashion house. Not for long—two years is perhaps too long.

For a poupée there would never be much need to work. They have to be completely available. They are not expected to speak of what they’ve done. If a man cannot come to her with money, he must at least have a name: socially he must be able to present something. An insolvent baron is acceptable. A poupée’s first step is to try to move in with the man, or vacation with him—poupées must be, always are, tanned. Were she thirty, she might give you six months after moving in to propose marriage; were she twenty-five, you might get a couple of years. Not much more—a poupée is not a creature of sentiment. She is not after love; she is after an address, a tenure.

Nor is she a creature of sensuality. She is not a sex-symbol—nothing forbidden or lustful there. Brigitte Bardot, a true doll, was never a poupée, nor did she ever convince as one in her films. Poupées cannot be dancers or actresses in their spare time; they have no spare time. Nor is what they do an act. They are like politicians who have convinced themselves that every word they say is true. Hence their sense of being unique, an authentic self-creation, an original. A society chooses its own myths.

The great poupée, then, is not Bardot, but Catherine Deneuve. A fine actress, we no longer look at her and see the actress: we see a public beauty who is part businesswoman, part warm reserve, part icon. It is no surprise that she represents France to the French. And the poupée, this one in particular, is our ideal of French womanhood as well: a coquette grown mature, beautifully coiffed, a vision of grace, ease, dynamism, and joie d’esprit. She is the European woman whom American women wish to live up to and American men wish to be worthy of. She is a woman’s woman, clearly equally at ease with men. She is like an orchestra that chooses to play in their concert-hall.

Ultimately the poupée is an image not only flattering to the man she is with, but self-flattering to the society. She is always beautiful, always cheerful, always energetic, always well-prepared; her reliability is eternal. She brings people smoothly together in ways that are not just amicable but profitable. She represents the legal, the conventional, the reassuring. She need only be au courant because it is thus that a culture convinces itself it is on top and ahead of the rest. No need for the masterpieces of the past when the art of the present is as vibrant, as worthy, as somptueux. The poupée represents, in a word, the French super-ego, relating itself continually to the rest of the world.

You will see the poupées running, running, running from place to place in Paris: the Racing Club (for swimming, tennis, meeting people), to a salon de thé to take petits fours with friends, to home for a workout with their visiting professeurs de gymnastiques. If you should happen to hear two of them talking in the street, their chat will be of their own little universe: probably of other women like them, “insupportable” because they are poupées. And how so-and-so has aged! Poupées are never extravagant or shrill in conversation; always a little haughty, they speak with great assurance. Of husband, children, couturiers: their world. If you spy a couple of them in the Place de Victoire, from a distance they may seem a pair of highly refined Barbies.

Do not be misled by the seeming nothing going on there. I once asked a poupée what she would do after, say, the age of thirty-eight. She already knew; it amused her. “Go back to being intelligent,” she said.