Sunday, December 8, 2013

GIGI - 1958

Gigi! What can one say about Gigi? It’s a charming little soufflé of a film that is ambrosia for the eyes. Yet, as everyone well knows, dessert alone cannot substantiate a satisfying meal; it is but one part of a multi-course dinner, after all. There has to be some meat and vegetables on every narrative’s plate, however delicate you please, to balance the palate and offer something of substance that an audience can really sink their ivories into. In the absence of all other culinary dimensions save for dessert, what is the result: A predictable experience that, while initially enjoyable, ultimately bestows upon its diner an unsatisfactory end, such as a toothache or an upset stomach that leaves one feeling as though a chorus line of girls were dancing the Can-Can inside the digestive system. And while it may not quite reach such depths of unpleasantness, Gigi does retain an overly predictable nature whose enjoyment is relegated to a thing best observed and sampled, but not so much consumed. For a film as beautiful as this one, observation and sampling render it, to borrow a phrase from one of the film’s musical numbers, a bore!

Directed by the music man Vincente Minelli, Gigi reunites him with Leslie Caron, who made her film debut in Minelli’s other Oscar winning song-and-dance kaleidoscope: An American in Paris. Filling out the film’s marquee are Louis Jordan, Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold, who undoubtedly was in possession of one of the most distinct speaking voices in all of cinema. Nominated in a hefty nine categories, Gigi proved the alluring cinematic courtesan by escorting home an Oscar for each of the categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture for 1958. The day after its sweep of the Oscars, the operators at MGM were apparently instructed to answer the phone as “M-Gigi-M.” As they well should have, because at the time nine victories was etched into the record books as being the most Oscars taken home by any film. (However, that record would be erased a mere year later with the arrival of Ben-Hur. But that is getting ahead of ourselves, old sport.) 

Based upon a novella written by the scandalous French authoress Colette, Gigi follows the trajectory of a young Parisian girl being groomed for a career as an elegant courtesan. Gigi’s Great Aunt Alicia, a legendary courtesan in her day, attempts to bestow upon her niece the enchanting qualities of etiquette and beauty that treat love as a form of art. Initially, Gigi proves a poor student, failing to grasp the point to her Aunt’s efforts, instead exclaiming that she doesn’t understand what all of the fuss is about love. A tomboy by nature, the precocious Gigi is more content to frolic through the park and tease Gaston Lachaille, a gaudily rich playboy who enjoys retreating from his shallow life to spend time with Gigi and her grandmother, Madame Alvarez.

Eventually, Gigi’s sense of refinement begins to take hold, and to Gaston’s great shock, she ceases to be the mischievous young girl he once knew. To his even greater surprise, Gaston stumbles into the realization that he is in love with Gigi. In the wake of this discovery, Gaston makes an offer to Madame Alvarez of taking Gigi as his mistress, promising to lavish her with kindness and luxury. However, Gigi initially declines Gaston’s offer, recoiling from the thought of being someone’s possession labeling her with an expiration date. But Gigi quickly reconsiders her position, telling Gaston that she would rather be miserable with him than without him. As the two embark on their first public outing together, Gaston becomes torn over the veracity of Gigi’s earlier description of his proposal; feeling that indeed at its core, the arrangement relegates Gigi akin to simply being his chattel. This feeling of angst torments him until he drags Gigi home in the middle of their date, ultimately acting on his feelings of true love by upgrading his initial offer to a proposal of marriage.

As I alluded to earlier, Gigi is nothing if not a visual candy land. The costumes, the sets, the back drop of Paris; they all combine to yield a series of images that pop like some French art gallery in motion. The film deservedly took home Oscars in all of the technical categories dedicated to crafting the look and feel of Gigi. The result is an enticing fairytale world whose glamour leaves one envious that they themselves are not a denizen of this world able to waltz through the parties and gossip during the operas.

As the princess of this enchanting scene, recognition has to be given to Leslie Caron for her irresistible performance as the transformative Gigi. Her talent and ease in front of the camera have dramatically improved, dispelling any memory of her somewhat stiff and awkward rookie performance in An American in Paris. In Gigi, she is effortlessly captivating and sublime, bringing a delightful energy to each scene she inhabits. Who wouldn’t fall right head over heels in love with such a charming girl? Caron also shines in her abilities as a comedic actress, which I think is often overlooked due to her front page good looks. But fortunately in Gigi, she is given the opportunity to be amusing, without being reduced to some sort of a ditz or bimbo that everyone is laughing at. Instead, and this is perhaps why Caron ends up carrying the entire picture, Gigi is still a girl of substance who exhibits a dash of sass every now and again. Even though Gigi eventually agrees to be Gaston’s mistress, girlfriend has to be given credit for being the only one with the nerve to call out the whole arrangement for exactly what it is: bullshitters. 

Thank heaven he didn't have more screen time.
Unfortunately, by comparison to Caron, the male principals in the film do not even come close in being able to match her energetic charm, leaving them to appear as dull, blunt instruments. The reality is that the men in the film are all cheating, hypocritical duds put forth to be charming teddy bears that the audience is supposed to manufacture tender feelings for. Yeah, nice try Arthur Freed. First of all, Maurice Chevalier just sounds looks like a top-hatted pervert when he starts singing “thank Heaven for little girls.” Plus, his character has to be one of the horniest old bastards ever on screen. Every scene he pops up in, he manages to have a different woman on his arm, appearing young enough to be his great granddaughter. And his range of conversational topics is seemingly limited to the activities of the boudoir.   

Things don’t improve much with Louis Jordan, who plays the wealthy and philandering Gaston. Jordan doesn’t quite strike the creepy chord that Chevalier does, but his character’s merits aren’t much better. I don’t know if the problem is germane to Jordan’s talents as an actor because he has delivered fine work in other films. I think the issue owes more to the fact that the character of Gaston is completely unsympathetic and, to be perfectly frank old sport, soporific. Gaston lives in a house that is a mini-me to Versailles, he wears the most elegantly cut clothes and is the toast of the Parisian social scene. Yet what does he do? Whilst practically choking on the amount of luxury surrounding him, he spends the entire film whining and complaining of how his life is the mayor of boring town. It renders him completely unlikable and superficial; certainly not a hero worthy of Gigi’s affections.

By the film’s end, I felt that Gaston’s off-putting nature had sort of tainted the whole film, giving it a slightly repellent nature. The story puts forth an effort to make the audience feel sympathy for Gaston in his struggles to reconcile his feelings for Gigi. But to me there is nothing in this dilemma that elicits any amount of pity because essentially Gaston’s struggle boils down to whether he takes Gigi on as his mistress or as his wife. Boo freaking who dude. It’s a situation that induces so much who-gives-a-shit eye rolling that one’s eyes are in peril of rolling right out of their sockets. The situation strikes such a whiny, pig-headed note that it had the opposite effect where I wanted to see the whole situation to go tits up with Gaston failing and suffering instead winning Gigi’s heart.  

For me, this negative reaction stems, in part, from the presentation of the story. If you strip it all away and consider what is happening, the situation Gigi finds herself in is very tragic and depressing. Essentially this sweet, innocent girl is being groomed for a life of high-class hooking, only to be passed around like a beer at some frat party over the course of her “career.” The film avoids taking any detours to acknowledge any of the darker elements inherently tied to the life of a courtesan. Instead, Gigi presents the situation with candied glossiness; accompanied by flirty musical numbers that combine to make it all look like some strange celebration of the world’s oldest profession. But where is the drama? Where are the consequences? What are the real stakes in this situation? When the party is over, then what happens? And as MTV has dared to ask all of these years, what happens when people stop being fake and start getting real? Ultimately for me, the eschewing of all dramatic gravity from a film that presents women as some sort of a commodity and men as heroic philanderers never to be held accountable for their hypocritical behavior is a film that is difficult to admire, which I guess makes sense because I’ve never liked ambrosia anyway. 

Favorite Line: In the course of Gigi's training with her Aunt Alicia, she dispenses several pearls of wisdom to ensure her niece's successful career. I found one particular insight from Aunt Alicia to be the most amusing line from the film, where she imparts that "bad table manners, my dear Gigi, have broken up more households than infidelity."

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