Deciphering the ‘Je ne sais quoi’ with Ollivier Pourriol’s ‘The French Art of Not Trying Too Hard’
BY OLIVIA RYAN
I may finally have the answer.
2 NOV - 2021
I adore everything about the French. From their fashion to their language, there is something intrinsically appealing about them.
But what is it exactly that is so enchanting? How is it that everything about one culture can be so widely venerated? Could France just be a country that has been romanticised over time in the Western world as the epicentre of supreme taste?
On my ongoing, subconscious quest to embody the “je ne sais quoi” of French muses, Brigette Bardot and Francois Hardy and the more contemporary “it girls” like Camille rowe and Jeanne Damas, I picked up the book “The French Art of not Trying too Hard” by Ollivier Pourriol. It is vetted as a self help book that dabbles in philosophy, but I was down for it as soon as I judged the book by its cover [or more accurately, its title].
I already have a longstanding love for pastries and butter [lots and lots of butter] and a beginner's catalogue of French Pop music on my side. I can see similarities between the religion that is food to the French and my Italian roots and I have been known to don a fringe similar to a Madam Jane Birkin. I know I will never be a French girl but I’m adamant in emulating the elusive cool quality - and yes, I do know it’s ironic that all the while, I’m trying hard to not try hard.
Flicking through the pages of “The French Art of Not Trying too Hard”, what I found was that attitude is at the very core of all French aesthetics. The French value self-expression without it being forced. It's an effortlessness in passion. Confidence in the absence of inhibition. The book itself feels in no way preachy or conceited as some self-help books can be. While Pourioull does not go into details on the French way of life, with not a mention of a baguette or beret in sight, the philosophies that are threaded through the paragraphs on its pages are reflected in all we love about the French.
Pourioll explains that he wrote the book not because he felt compelled to help people or because he had a superior understanding of the human psyche. He wrote it simply because he felt like it. As the title suggests, the French really just don't try too hard. And it works.
It is a hard thing to wrap your head around in our world that seems to j’adore the hustle. One that supports very carefully curating a personal brand in the grid of your Instagram. One that has an attention economy leaving us quick to judge on appearances and headlines. While technology has made living a whole lot easier in some ways, it is undeniable that in these times, comparison and competition feel a little more heightened. But the French, well they seem consistently cool. Here are a few reasons why:
They Don’t Do Trends
Take a Chanel Flap Bag, a Louis Vuitton Malle, a Brereton striped shirt or a tailored piece of denim. They don’t get cycled through the decades, because they have simply never gone out of style. Whether it's a beautiful cashmere sweater to layer in winter or throw on during cool summer nights, or a pair of leather loafers to pound the cobble stoned streets season after season, the French invest in timeless pieces that stand the test of time. This value of quality over quantity [and price] runs also through the French neighbourhoods, where locals go to small, family-run boulangeries, patisseries and épiceries that have not been quashed by large chains, for the finest produce.
They Embrace “Imperfections”
With a multitude of antiaging potions and instagram filters available [for when those potions aren't quite hitting the mark], beauty standards value youth and promote an unattainable ideal of perfection. The French are known for embracing their grey locks and rather than working tirelessly to smooth out fine lines, they focus on prevention. When crows feet do begin to settle in, it's all about drawing your attention to other features. That could be by using dewy products rather than mattifying ones and dabbing on a rouge lip. Meanwhile, moles and marks are embraced as “jolie-laide” or “ugly-pretty” and are considered just as much a part of you as your favourite tv show or middle name.
They're Unapologetically Confident (but won’t show off)
There is something undeniably sexy about the French. English speakers often remark that their directness is a little disarming, sometimes interpreted as brash or even impolite. Two of the most common words to describe them may sometimes be “sexy” and “rude”, but that really is selling the French short. There is a confidence that undercuts French people, be that through wit, flirtation or inquisitiveness. They aren't usually a result of niceties, but instead an intrinsic charisma. I don't have the experience of having gone to a French high school or having lived in a beautiful 18th century apartment building in the 7th arrondissement to know whether there are grumbles of a certain someone being a “try hard.” But there seems to be a certain French principle to surround yourselves only with those who will accept you for who you are. That negates the need to show off for anyone [apart from yourself].
Camille Cherriere shared the secret that French women do in fact go to the gym, they just don’t want you to know about it, precisely because they do it not for approval from others, but for their own satisfaction.
They Honour Their History
Like all cultures, France has a rich and vivid history. There is no shortage of French literature, cinema and art that is celebrated worldwide, but also kept alive from generation to generation in France. They carefully honour the past just as much as the future, and their deep knowledge and appreciation for the beauty in art makes them seem super sophisticated. Thrift shopping was the norm in France long before the rise of the alt-tik toker. One scroll through one of my favourite instagram pages @parisiensinparis and you will see a collage of stylish dames living by that value of eclecticism. Antique stores are considered treasure troves of stories to be told through each individual item, and every scratch or stain that adorns it.
There is an unshackled sense of joie de vivre amongst the French, whereby each day is something to be if not celebrated, then lived passionately. Have you heard many languages as free-flowing and full of passion as French? With all this talk of “ease”, be sure not to confuse it with a lack of effort. Finding your passions should not come from effort - if you are intune with yourself, it should be organic and genuine. Then, once you find the things you love, there is no shame to be felt for immersing yourself in it until your heart’s content.
Pourioull points out that historically in France, gallery goers didn’t favour the techniques of artists, but instead searched for a “palpable ease” with which it was seemingly created. If you have ever been told by a loved one to “just be yourself”, you’ll know that it really is never that easy. But if the French are walking around being unapologetically themselves and getting all the glory, there might be something to be said for it. Maybe we should all try it. Just not too hard.