Posts Tagged ‘Gossip Girl’

Gossip Girl 4x01
Care-Blair Stare

Four young people at a picnic. The men are fully-clothed, with a charming, bohemian flair; they are monied but slumming it – young poets or artists (they were in fact modelled on the painter’s friends and brothers), taking the rowboat out for an afternoon picnic, and enjoying all that Paris had to offer at the height of the belle epoque.

And what they are enjoying at present is the company of the woman sitting before them – a woman unlike any in the history of art. The model was Victorine Meurent, and between Dejeuner Sur L’herbe and Manet’s other masterpiece, Olympia, her glance and refusal to compromise or demure would change art forever. She is nude, but not like any classical nude before her – she’s not a sugary-sweet nymph, but a real and vivacious woman – her stylish clothes in a heap beside her, she seems to have effortlessly enraptured her two suitors, and arrests the painting’s viewer with her knowing, flirtatious gaze.

Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe scandalized Paris. Not because Victorine was nude, but because she was so unapologetically so. Without the excuse of mythology or the air-brush of smooth lines (“she looks like she rather needs to work out”, one art critic said), Manet had depicted a vision of total social chaos. A woman who refuses to play by the rules – and is all the more enchanting because of it.

…But in the background, there is another young woman, knee-deep in the water next to the rowboat. She awkwardly adjusts her wet clothes, her face twisting downwards away from us in a shy grimace that is the opposite of Victorine’s self-possessed, unapologetic glare. She seems to have arrived with the picnickers, but she stands apart, unsure, clutching nervously, even desperately, at her clothes – “stiff as a bookcase”, you might say, if you were a particularly unfeeling photographer.

Unlike Victorine, no one remembers her name.

Blair Waldorf and her Prince

I was at first somewhat baffled when Blair said that Manet was her favourite; I assumed it must be an accident of production availability and scale – Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe is eminently recognizable, permanently on display, and notoriously – critics even said inappropriately – massive, so it makes for good TV; it says “Paris” as much as the Eiffel Tower, and in an episode chock-ful of name-dropping, even by Gossip Girl standards, I thought it was one more among the gaggle. Blair herself even admits that standing in front of the painting or “reading Colette in the park” (an insert shows her with Gigi) is half-pose to catch a guy (subtly foreshadowing Juliet’s more sinister intent when we come upon her at the restaurant “reading” House of Mirth (one of the key inter-texts of Gossip Girl as a series, it also makes sense that a character as obsessed with these wealthy teens would be a Wharton fan – even if I do worry that Juliet is just Poppy Lifton 2.0, it is sort of hilarious that she’s basically using Wharton’s “I’m secretly poor pretending to be rich” book as a manual. I guess she hasn’t got to the end yet?)).

But we’re given more of a clue to Dejeuner’s centrality to the story in the Orsay. Blair stares at the painting in such a state of rapture that when Louis starts talking to her, she barely acknowledges his come-ons – so much so that I thought they were setting up a slapstick Blair-doesn’t-actually-speak-French joke (God bless Leighton Meester, but Louis is certainly generous when he calls her French “flawless”).

As meet-cute becomes double-date and prince becomes pauper, Blair watches Louis and “the prince” become entranced by Serena. What follows is essentially Blair’s neurotic attempt to impose one version of the painting upon her life while categorically denying the other version; at all costs, Blair is hellbent upon being Victorine – the lovely, commanding queen with all eyes upon her – while suppressing the terrible awareness that so long as Serena van der Woodsen is in the frame, she will always be the anonymous, frumpy friend in the background of paparazzi photos or proto-Impressionist masterpieces, as the case may be.

Serena Paintsnaked dude

Like Manet’s Victorine, Serena is a muse (Gossip Girl’s word in this scene, not mine!) whose gaze (and here, her brush) implicate *us.* We are the subject, not the viewer.

Blair attempts to insist on the importance of social graces and decorum when Louis talks about being ejected from a party for his blue jeans, trying to rout Serena’s je ne sais quoi charm by neutralizing it with good manners. When the actual tableau of Dejeuner asserts herself at the dinner table, with both men wildly gesticulating and hanging on Serena’s every golden word, Blair, as usual, loses her entire set of marbles. In the episode’s broadest moment of slapstick, and recalling both their infamous hair-pulling Yale fight and that time Serena threw her into a cake (so awesome, you guys), Blair even tries violently to recast Serena as the nameless wet girl in the background of Dejeuner by dropping her into the fountain – to no avail, of course; even wet, Serena has got It in a way Blair never can.

Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe

Blair loves Manet for two reasons: the first is because he gives her the fantasy of a world stripped of social niceties and rigid class. To be allowed to be as careless, as free, and even as sloppy as Victorine (or Serena) is a pleasure that Blair, buttoned-up and snugly coutured, has always been denied. Even naked, even totally abject, Victorine can remain adored and in control. That is the first reason, and perhaps the more obvious.

The second, however, is because, as much as Manet allows the fantasy of supreme self-confidence and assuredness even in the face of total exposure, he knew, cast as he was in the mire of hypocritical bourgeois values that so inhibited his quiet bohemian spirit, what it was like to feel not-quite-right in one’s clothes – to feel awkward, and exposed, and out-of-sync. To be the girl in the background, lonely, wet, and embarrassed.

“We write our own fairytales,” Serena warns Blair when she sees that gleam in her eyes. It’s the lesson Blair never learns, and the reason Princes in Disguise keep appearing in her story, only to have her fail, every time, to recognize them. She attempts to escape and reinvent, only to have the same patterns reassert themselves. Chuck’s new identity as “Henry Prince” is part of this same suspension-and-reinscription: a new name that blots out his old one, but, in choosing Shakespeare’s Henry V as his inspiration, re-asserts his old life just as potently: Chuck is the prodigal Prince Hal, getting his kicks in to the chagrin of a dismayed and disappointed father, and now, in his shadow, attempting to build an empire – attempting, in fact, to conquer France.

Just like the Hamptons before it, the interlude in Paris is an attempt to forestall the inevitable (“We should’ve stayed in Florence with Eric and Elliot”, Rufus says, just before he hits the big red button marked “VANESSA”. And i mean, who the fuck wouldn’t?). And Blair always knew it; when Louis meets her in the Orsay, he recognizes instantly she is American – not by her accent, but her watch. “It is set to Eastern Standard Time.” Four months, and she never changed the time – “But you love New York!” she chastised her mother when she herself threatened to move to Paris, “You always say that anyone who lives anywhere else is fooling themselves.”

The City of Love was just a fantasy – just a chance to disappear, to go unnoticed, and to pretend. Of course it fell apart the instant she checked up on Gossip Girl.

Episode Grade: 8.0/10.