Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Birds and the Bises: The Art of French Kissing

French photographer Robert Doisneau captured the hearts of hopeless romantics worldwide with ‘Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville’ (or, ‘Kiss at City Hall’) – an image that has become as synonymous with Paris as the Eiffel Tower, fine wine and baguettes. Taken in 1950, the photograph portrays a handsome young couple pausing for a spontaneous embrace in front of City Hall, the blurry images of harried passersby surrounding them. This picture of whimsical romance has helped to contribute to Paris not only being recognized as the City of Light, but also the City of Love.

The more sentimental among us, then, are disheartened to learn that Doisneau’s seemingly impromptu lip-lock was, in reality, premeditated. When Françoise Bornet, the female half of the couple, sued Doisneau for a percentage of the photograph’s sales (she lost), it was revealed that the photographer had asked she and her boyfriend to pose. Bornet may have never benefited from sales revenues, but she did manage to cash in when she sold her original print of the famous kiss for 155.000 euros ($259,000 U.S.) at an auction.

For some, kisses come at a price.

Doisneau is among hundreds of artists that have used embracing Parisians as inspiration. More sarcastically, rogue songwriter Georges Brassens criticized couples kissing on park benches for believing that the seating accommodations existed specifically for that purpose in ‘Les amoureux des bancs publics.’ Leo Ferré lamented in ‘Les amants de Paris’ that the city’s amorous couples remain blissfully unaware that they use his rhymes and music as the backdrop of their romance, without giving him any credit. The song was eventually interpreted by Edith Piaf.

Perhaps Paris’s reputation precedes it, or maybe it’s because the city’s aesthetic lends itself to heady romance, but it’s true that people here spend a lot of time kissing. Nowadays, even the stuffiest of politicos are generous with their affection: with the first round of France’s presidential elections less than a week away, candidates are doling out their most heartfelt bises to babies, old ladies, and the media’s collective derrière. In A Year in the Merde (Bloomsbury), Stephen Clarke’s semi-fictitious account of an Englishman’s first year living and working in Paris, the author opens by recounting his first day on the job. Everywhere he looked, he wrote, people were kissing. Hardly the stuff of Anglo-Saxon corporate culture, where complimenting someone on their attire could be perceived as sexual harassment.

French kissing over here is not just reserved for spit-swapping adolescents, nor is it exclusive to those doe-eyed Paris lovers that Ferré and Brassens complained about. As common as saying ‘bonjour,’ les bises, bisous (or bizzz…in text messages and emails) are how friends, family, familiar acquaintances, and even some colleagues greet each other, both at the beginning and conclusion of their rendez-vous. While generally a quick peck on each cheek, les bises are as subtle as the French language itself: down south or among more classic circles, the number of bisous can rise to four or even six; in other settings, people change it up by giving three. Upon initial introduction, cheek-kissing is generally conducted between women or women and men, however guys who know each other well substitute handshakes with les bises as well.

For newcomers hailing from a handshake culture, les bises is one of those adorable practices that takes some getting used to. In social settings, it’s customary to make the rounds at both the début and fin de la soirée, which calls for a lot of lip action. (In fact, it can be viewed as impolite to do otherwise.) When one visits home, something just doesn’t seem right: those first few seconds upon meeting someone seem awkward, and a handshake doesn’t really fill the void. Kissing everyone may be time-consuming, but something is missing when this custom isn’t employed. And hey, with all of that close contact, one becomes a whiz at identifying perfume.

Every now and then, some ambitious medical expert will attempt to put a damper on all of this love by addressing the health-related consequences associated with close contact: the more we kiss, the more chance we have of spreading germs. The French remain unfazed: les bises are one of life’s petits plaisirs, and in a frenzied society where pleasure is growing harder and harder to come by, sharing a bit of bacteria serves as an antidote to what can sometimes be an unfriendly world.

For now, it would seem, a kiss is still a kiss.