Sunday 20 January 2013
1,001 Films: "Gigi" (1958)
Fifty years on from point of production - and a full century after the period in which it was set - certain allowances have to be made for Vincente Minnelli's musical Gigi. Take the opening sequence, in which Maurice Chevalier, as an ageing roué with a marked resemblance to Stuart Hall, trolls around the Bois de Boulogne, breaking into "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" as the youngest of a coterie of schoolgirls skips past him ("Those little eyes/So helpless and appealing..."). Chevalier, it turns out, is a bit player here - a lurker on the sidelines, sporadically charged with the responsibilities of a narrator - yet the main narrative thrust could scarcely be less dodgy.
As Paris dons the fresh panties of the twentieth century, jaded sugar magnate Louis Jourdan has his appetites rekindled by little Leslie Caron, the little girl he delights in putting over his knee and spanking. It's hardly reassuring that Jourdan prefers his Gigi in school uniform, rather than the elegant laces and frills her guardians doll her up in, in the hope of landing her her sugar daddy; nor that, after standing her ground for a while, Gigi finally agrees to being railroaded into marriage with the first man of means she's introduced to. There's no question the film cherishes and celebrates a relationship that would be frowned upon in any other context; the Norman Rockwell wholesomeness of Meet Me in St. Louis suddenly seems an awful long way away. (It would be pushing matters to propose the film as a standard-bearer for the permissive society, but something of its anything-goes morality persists here.)
The movie's pleasures lie in Minnelli's presentation (Gigi lives in the reddest house ever filmed: an example of interior over-design even Almodóvar and the sisters in Cries and Whispers might have considered de trop) and in the Lerner/Loewe numbers. It helps that these were some of Lerner's best lyrics, but consider also the simplicity of Minnelli's staging for the duet "I Remember It Well" (two-shots framed against a back-projected sunset, allowing faces in the twilight of their years to convey the song's emotion and subtext more or less ideally) or for "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore" (one camera - one take, almost - on Chevalier and a table of cheese and wine, those essential props of the bon viveur). The Rob Marshalls of this world - whose musicals forever appear too busy, perhaps to compensate for the weakness of their tunes - could learn a lot here. The remainder ranks on or about the same level as My Fair Lady: too questionable in its underlying sexual politics to qualify as a truly first-rate piece of work, yet a reliable source of entertainment (and cringing horror) whenever a bank holiday comes around.
Gigi is currently unavailable on DVD in the UK.