Film Companion This is Paris

Director: Alexandra Dean
Genre: Documentary
Streaming on: YouTube

Most actors live their life hard so that they can perform on screen. But Paris Hilton performed her life hard so that she could live on screen. In This Is Paris, the 39-year-old heiress lives and breathes. She reveals a part of her for whom “live” was still a human verb before it became a digital noun. She is vulnerable to the world when she admits that the “brand” on which she has built her multi-million dollar business empire is merely a character: Like the city she’s named after, she presented the Paris that tourists pay to see, not the Paris too cramped for its own citizens. She then makes her own world vulnerable by confronting the story that triggered this make-believe fairytale: childhood trauma. She opens up about a tough phase with a sense of self-awareness that belies her global image. When we use terms like “surprising” to describe this film, it only reiterates the fact that the blonde superstar might have pulled off a 20-year-long Oscar-worthy role.

Usually a performance – the art of lying – shines when it frames a lifetime of truth. But Paris Hilton’s biographical documentary – the art of truth – shines because it reframes a lifetime of lies. It suggests that her fame is both the mask and the face: a mask to stand out and a face to hide in. Director Alexandra Dean constructs the narrative in a way that spotlights this duality: Paris is both therapist and patient, creator and product, effect and cause. For instance, early on Paris confesses to her sister that she keeps losing interest in the men she dates because even their gestures of support – like accompanying her (“like bitchboys”) across the globe – emasculates them in her eyes. At first, it sounds like a throwaway line for the cameras. Minutes later, we see her dump her boyfriend in Belgium. The drama of the spat is distinctly young: he wants her attention, she is too busy doing interviews. They fight like 30-something teenagers. The venue of the spat, too, is in sync: The electronic dance festival Tomorrowland, where Paris is seconds away from taking the stage as the world’s leading female DJ.

Paris Hilton often speaks about the beauty of falling in love, while also resigning herself to a future where her desire to stay young (“Marriage forces you to grow up”) dictates her addiction to anguish. To the filmmaker’s credit, Paris comes across as a rational romantic who uses companionship as a defibrillator to resuscitate her emotionally crippled heart. At times, we see these traits that she cannot. That’s because the film probes her personality with investigative rigour, and the facts are laid out – without judgment – for us to draw our own conclusions from. It’s easy to dismiss Hilton’s pain as the price of privilege, or as just another first-world-problems portrait. But this documentary, much like its Taylor Swift counterpart Miss Americana, paints privilege as an illness only a few are unfortunate enough to withstand. When the human spirit breaks, the sound pierces through a packed slum, but it echoes in an empty mansion. 

That This Is Paris can be viewed on Youtube for free is an extension of its subject’s intimate tone. As if to say: I’ve monetized my escapism for years, but I refuse to monetize my reality. She subverts the poor-little-rich-celebrity template by not only accepting the psychological damage of her abusive boarding-school years but also demonstrating – with alarming clarity – that the damage might be irreversible. The documentary opens with Paris in a studio, casually rehearsing her “ten different voices” for the intro. The moment instantly bursts our bubble and establishes Paris Hilton as an artist who has long exploited our perception of elitism. It’s this perception that got her bullied and abused by the adult administrators of “emotional growth” schools. But her multifaceted career (socialite, DJ, model, singer, actress, influencer) has always rested on the foundations of frivolousness; it has relied and thrived on the fact that nobody, including Paris Hilton, takes her seriously. In other words, the world is now the bully, and her career – designed to convince us of our control – is her revenge.

The documentary makes it evident that while we were busy viewing her as a social experiment, we were the social experiment all along. While we felt sorry for her, she laughed – or politely chuckled – her way to the bank. This may sound like the climactic “twist” in a fictional thriller. But it is actually only the conflict of her story. The resolution is that there is no resolution. At some points, the film explicitly reminds us that Paris Hilton was the original social media influencer even before social media existed. She clicked selfies before they were a thing, she went viral before the internet became a fever dream. She is seen Instagramming every waking moment of her days. She even remembers her ex-lovers in the currency of shattered laptops; most of them, fed up with her online obsession, wrecked a Macbook each. In effect, This Is Paris tests the viewer’s trust in Paris Hilton in a way that mirrors her trust issues with those around her. The conversations with her sister Nikki seem slightly staged, a means to an end. At one point, the camera shows her sleepless in Seoul to highlight her insomnia. She stays up, and confides to the camera that she is tired of pretending to be someone else. This is the film’s first confessional moment, setting the tone for several to follow.

At some points, the film explicitly reminds us that Paris Hilton was the original social media influencer even before social media existed. She clicked selfies before they were a thing, she went viral before the internet became a fever dream

But it’s the setting of the “scene” that is unsettling. A hotel room. It’s almost as if she deliberately chooses the space – similar to the one from her infamous sex tape – to bare her soul, to show that her life has come full circle from baring her body. Even towards the end, when Paris shares a cathartic experience with other survivors of her boarding school, we begin to wonder: Is she being genuine? Or is this a choreographed ploy to win our empathy? Does Paris Hilton love the camera so much that she can’t tell her fiction from her reality anymore? Has Paris Hilton performed for so long that even not performing is a subconscious performance of sorts? Is she too far gone?

But of course, the more we doubt the legacy of her suffering, the more we admire the legitimacy of her legacy. And the more we believe that a lie is nothing but honesty blessed with the courage to wait. The wait is what matters. The weight is the story. After all, Paris wasn’t built in a day. 

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