A Paris Hilton documentary leads our columnist to search for signs of humanity in the infamous heiress

Last night I saw Adria Petty’s documentary about Paris Hilton, Paris, Not France. I’d heard chatter about this movie when I was at the Toronto Film Festival last year, but they’d held only one screening and I was too busy drinking Canadian Club to muscle my way into a writhing nest of journos and flacks. The film finally aired on MTV last week, and it was worth the wait. I watched it with my Chihuahua, Luca, and pretended that we were Paris and Tinkerbell on a daybed in Cannes.

The public’s appetite for frothy, flippant blondes has waned, but Paris Hilton still fascinates me. In fact, Paris is one of the first superstars I ever saw in the flesh (if you don’t include the distant, blurry figures I ogled through binoculars at stadium concerts). It was 2006 and I was standing on Hollywood Boulevard trying to gain entry to a club called Social or Special or something like that. Me and the other groundlings were cordoned off behind the ubiquitous velvet rope, that plump, sausagelike cord that symbolically divides Us from Them. Normally, I avoided these indignities, but I’d heard Justin Timberlake was going to be performing, and like most of America, I was in the throes of ”SexyBack” fever. J.T. was launching his then-new clothing line, William Rast, at the club that night. I’ll wear anything endorsed by a celebrity, so I was hoping to score a free T-shirt or perhaps a jaunty man-fedora.

Suddenly, about 50 yards away, I heard an advancing ruckus. I would describe this ruckus as a Category 5 crapstorm. It rolled swiftly and noisily down the boulevard, parting crowds of gawkers with its momentum and magnitude. It was Paris, engulfed in a mob of paparazzi and fans. She charged forward briskly, her hair extensions drifting in the stale breeze. Her stiletto heels struck the sidewalk like drill bits. As she passed, we briefly locked eyes. In person, she looked beautiful, aristocratic. Tabloid photos capture people at their most self-conscious and disoriented; in real life, Paris Hilton is like an elegant paper crane.

Paris, Not France, filmed the same year as my encounter with the heiress, focuses on Paris’ ongoing identity crisis. Confiding in Petty — who casts a markedly sympathetic eye on her subject — she laments that her image as a vapid, vulgar party girl has prevented her from ever being perceived as, well, ladylike. After years of self-promotion and playacting, Paris has painted herself into a corner. She’s a caricature at best, a cultural pariah at worst. You can’t help but feel that it’s her fault; she, after all, was the one who gleefully squandered her dignity on a million red carpets. She’s had so many opportunities to redeem herself, to reveal that she’s in on the joke. Hell, if the girl wanted to, she could buy an hour of network prime time and recite Shakespeare to the world. But she doesn’t.

And yet one senses that Paris is truly scarred — even traumatized — by the acid that’s been flung her way by the media and the public alike. No one could deflect that kind of vitriol, not even a woman who’s described herself as ”American royalty” and released six vanity fragrances. Consider this: When people want to slag on Paris Hilton, they inevitably bring up her sex tape. The sex tape that was released without her consent and filmed when she was 20 years old. You’d think the humiliation of that incident might have earned her a temporary reprieve from all the mudslinging. A moment of sympathy, perhaps. Instead, she was pilloried.

Watching the documentary, I looked closely for the ”real” Paris. She acknowledges in the film that she has two different voices: a babyish coo for public appearances, and a normal womanly tone for her private life. Sometimes, when addressing Petty’s camera, Paris can’t decide which voice to use. She shifts fluidly back and forth as if dissociating from herself. Sometimes she’ll begin a statement in her ”baby voice,” only to break character with progressively downward-sloping intonation. It’s as if she’s only partially committed to exposing her real self, which is why the documentary is only partially successful. You want to see more, but you sense Paris already worries she’s shown too much.