The Guardian-Michal Ronel
Netflix and Disney set their festive films in a made-up mishmash of France, Switzerland, Romania and everything in between. Is real Europe so hard to love?
Genovia, Europeland … The Princess Diaries. Photograph: Walt Disney/Allstar
Netflix’s Christmas universe is an inescapable one, and two of its most successful franchises are The Princess Switch – which recently saw the release of the series’ third film – and A Christmas Prince. Both these franchises take place in a particularly interesting non-place: their American heroines travel to a made-up country which is a perfect synthesis of a certain Europe as seen through certain eyes. This territory – whether it’s named Belgravia, Montanero or Aldovia – does not exist on the map, and yet gets built again and again. It is a curious mishmash of Romania, Switzerland, Italy and everything in between, topped off with a healthy dose of bad British accent.
What are the characteristics of this strange enclave? Does it have national ambitions, and if so, of what nature? Can we understand its people? In investigating this potpourri Europeland it’s best to shift away from Netflix and turn to another blockbuster franchise, The Princess Diaries. Based on a YA book series, the two Princess Diaries movies have introduced us to Genovia and its capital Pyrus. Anne Hathaway plays American commoner Mia Thermopolis, who, in Europelandish dialect, becomes princess Amelia Mignonette Thermopolis Renaldi. The name alone distils a funky mixture of France, Greece and Monaco. “Whatever, it’s Europe!” – we can almost hear the Hollywood executive growling in the back.
From the get go, Genovia presents itself as esoteric. “You’ve got pears in your flowers,” remarks young Hathaway when she first enters the Genovian consulate in her home town. “Genovian pears, we’re famous for them,” replies the Genovian attache. Later in the film, more general-Europe characteristics pop up: Genovians, it appears, are famous for their cheese, and for their excellent taste in art. When Mia learns the traditional Genovian dance, her instructor explicitly explains that the dance is “between a waltz and a tango”. Hathaway replies: “So, it’s a wango?” Julie Andrews does a desperate facepalm, in her role as the Genovian queen grandmother. But what the hell, Mia is right! It is indeed called a “wango”.
When a journalist waiting for the would-be-princess asks his peers if anyone knows where Genovia actually is, he is hushed with a quick “it’s a country between France and Spain, it was a question on Jeopardy”. This between-ism is a skill that the continent offers Hollywood, as it rolls its eyes and admits: OK, you won’t be interested in us as separate entities, even if we are the ones who invented the concept of a separate entity – ie nation – in the first place, but as a general ‘foreign’ buffet, we might still be able to temporarily hold your attention – and production crews.
Of course, Europe is not the only hybridised foreign buffet on offer to the US market; the same is true for Russia, the Middle East and elsewhere. But Europelandia is sufficiently familiar or attractive to the American eye to be treated as mainstream enough for Christmas.
These Netflix and Disney franchises, though, will find it hard to compete with one of the grooviest whatever-it’s-Europe movies ever made, The Beautician and the Beast (1997), starring none other than Fran Drescher. Again, the name of the made up country tells us much of what we need to know. This time, we’re travelling to Slovetzia. Decidedly eastern European – thus less mainstream and less desirable – Slovetzia doesn’t have the sunbaked beaches of The Princess Diaries, and not a drop of the magical snow that lavishly decorates all three of the Princess Switch movies. Also, unlike the others, The Beautician and the Beast goes as far as showing us an “actual” map. The Slovetzian borders are squeezed between those of Hungary, Romania and Ukraine. Drescher plays a flashy New York beautician, accidentally hired as a science teacher to the children of Slovetzia’s ruler, tasked with “exposing them to western thought”.
Will any of the kids in the elite families of Genovia or Belgravia ever need such lessons? It’s highly unlikely. Even in non-places, as much as real ones, hierarchy is as an essential ingredient of power as gravity itself.