Saturday, June 14, 2014

Vicente Minnelli | Gigi

up too close, back too far
by Douglas Messerli

 (Alan Jay Lerner, screenplay, based on the fiction of Colette, and lyrics), Frederick Loewe (music, orchestrated by André Previn), Vicente Minnelli (director) Gigi / 1958

Alan Jay Lerner’s and Frederick Loewe’s original film musical of 1958 received several glorious reviews, including the New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther’s  comparison of it with the author and composer’s Broadway success My Fair Lady. The music later garnered numerous Golden Globe Awards and eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (Vicente Minnelli), Best Screenplay (Alan Jay Lerner), Best Costume Designer (Cecil Beaton), and Best Original Score (awarded to the film’s musical arranger, André Previn instead of to composer Frederick Loewe). In 1991 the film was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Today, Gigi is generally perceived as the last great cinematic musical presented by Arthur Freed and MGM Studios.

      Despite all of these kudos—or perhaps one should say, along with them—some reviews portrayed the film as “100% escapist fare” (Variety), the family-oriented TV Guide describing the experience of seeing it as making one feel that “you’re gagging on pastry. …Ten minutes into the movie, you’ve resolved the plot and are left to wallow in lovely frou-frou.” Nearly everyone praised the sets, costumes, and acting, but, as Time Out described it, watching Gigi is like eating a meal “consisting of cheesecake”; “One quickly longs for something solid and vulgar to weigh things down.”

     No one could not possibly disagree with the statements of the beauty of Minnelli’s film, but at times I feel these critics may not have seen the same film I watched again for at least the 10th  time on a home-library DVD. The film I watched begins with the Gallic charmer Maurice Chevalier (playing the elderly womanizer Honoré Lachaille) singing what might almost be described as a paean to pedophilia, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” True, Honoré’s interest in the little girls over upon whom he leers as they play near Paris’ Bois de Boulogne is that “they grow up in the most delightful ways.” And the sexual liaisons in which he attempts to engage throughout the film are mostly ineffectual. In reality Chevalier was nearly 70 at the time the film features him with young women upon his arm, which certainly might lead to some gossip in real life. Honoré, however, has no quibbles about suggesting his handsome young nephew (Gaston Lachaille, played by Louis Jourdan) keep in the touch with young so that some of youth might “rub off.” Honoré’s past affairs, however, seem to have little effect upon him, since, as he reveals in his duet with a former lover Madame Alvarez, “I Remember It Well,” he brazenly forgets nearly everything.

      Gaston, meanwhile, is an absurdly spoiled young man-about-town, who, despite his numerous affairs with beautiful women—one of which results in his former lover’s suicide (she has killed herself from “insufficient poison” numerous times)—and a penchant for buying expensive baubles that might even make someone like Donald Trump blink, is, so he declares, utterly “bored.” His self-centrism is reiterated in the Lerner and Loewe ditty (“She Is Not Thinking of Me”).  The only “thing” he seems to enjoy is the company of a young schoolgirl, Gigi (the fresh-faced Leslie Caron), to whom he brings candy in turn for numerous card games and the simple joy of watching her flaunt her youthful cleverness. At one point he brings her grandmother, Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold), a bottle of champagne, which, despite the elder’s warning, with Gaston’s help Gigi gulps down in such quantities that she becomes quite drunk (“The Night They Invented Champagne”).*

      If we are not shocked by the young girl’s behavior or, at least, the lack of her proper parenting—her own mother has seemingly abandoned her for life on the stage—surely the society of the time might be—a fact of Gigi is well aware through her reading of numerous scandal sheets—all which seemingly center upon the rakish life of Gaston and others. The Belle Époque, as presented in this film, is a world of gossips, brilliantly revealed in the movie’s luscious scenes in the wealthy dining rooms of Maxim’s.

      If the alcoholic inebriation of a young girl doesn’t phase one, perhaps the fact that the girl’s grandmother and her sister, Alicia (Isabel Jeans) are attempting to educate their young charge in the art of being a high-paid mistress, might give one pause. After the two younger figures, Gaston and Gigi, innocently gambol about the beach at Deauville—despite the fact that a grown man wrestling upon the sand with a teenage girl might give viewers pause—the women join forces to speed up the young’s sexual education. Gaston, realizing that he has suddenly fallen in love with the formerly gawky kid, is quite willing and ready to grandly set her up (house, servants, clothes, jewels, and even a carriage) as what used to be called a “kept woman.” As Honoré quips, a girl like that is good for four months!

      A quick learner, despite the frustrations of her teacher-Aunt, Gigi bollixes his plans by performing all the selfless tasks of waiting on her lover as well as all the other women he has encountered. Boredom ensues once more; and Gaston, returning Gigi home like she were package a spoiled meat, is ready to abandon her before he has even begun the seduction and rape which was surely to have followed.

     True, this Colette-inspired work occurs in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, a world far removed in the moral values and Sunday-school admonitions of Kalamazoo. And, in the end, the authors redeem the murky relationships somewhat by marrying off Gigi to Gaston, whereupon we observe her interacting with the ladies of Bois de Boulogne as if she were an old friend of everyone. As Gaston calls her back to his side in the carriage we almost fear that, given Gigi’s final transformation, his eyes might shift to the gatherings of young girls of which the old codger Honoré and, now, the whole chorus rhapsodize in a reprise of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.”    

     In the end, one has to wonder, after all of producer Arthur Freed’s battles with the members of the Hays Office to make this film, just what that haven of moral decency won. Superficially, of course, all may be as sweet and delicious as the cake sweetened with curds, eggs, milk and sugar; the film almost seems to have given up any of its Colette-based plot. But just underneath that layer of dessert topping is something in this film that takes us in another direction, something closer to another notion of “cheesecake,” genre of feminine pin-ups, revealing lots of leg if little explicit nudity; and, at times, to put it more vulgarly, we may even glimpse, metaphorically speaking, yet another slang variation of that word: a subversive flash of a woman’s crotch, which certainly does, despite the criticisms of magazines like Time Out substantially “weigh things down.” One might even argue that, despite all of its extravagant costumes and sets, the characters of the world are utterly consumed with the idea of sex. Even the innocent Gigi, early on in the movie, decries the Parisian preoccupation with sex in the song “The Parisians”:

Gigi: A necklace is love! A ring is love! / A rock from some obnoxious little king is love! / A sapphire with a star is love! / An ugly black cigar is love! / Everything you are is love! You would think it would embarrass / All the people here in Paris / To be thinking every minute of love!

     It is just these underlying, slightly “darker” elements of this masterful musical comedy that give it luster—like the dark light that Gigi’s Aunt describes gathering within the center of an emerald—transforming whatever might be described as “frou-frou” into a glide of true elegance. As Gaston warns, in order to truly see Gigi, one must be careful not to stand too close or too far.

* Gigi is also made drunk, in a later scene, while she dines with her Aunt who is teaching her to properly consume wine.

Los Angeles, June 14, 2014

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