Gigi August 17, 2015
Movies that work on a large scale, especially all those musical epics of the 1950s and ‘60s, generally have a hard time genuinely touching the viewer. The bigger the ornate decor, the harder it is to generate intimacy, as evidenced by such films as 1968’s Funny Girl or 1954’s Brigadoon. I’m a critic everlastingly hungry for the emotional grab of the celluloid. A movie can look and sound scrumptious all it wants to, but I’d rather be impacted than impressed.
Gigi (1958) a widely revered movie musical that won over saucer-eyed audiences and sardonic critics upon release, makes for an odd mix of the miles-away predicament of its afro-mentioned peers and the intimacy one craves in a colorful film of its sort. Massive in size and enthusiastic in its set and costume design, Gigi looks the part of the My Fair Lady soul sister, but at a relatively short 116 minutes (which is short in the epic musical category), it often feels like a giant movie crammed into the space of a smaller one, becoming in some places but loose, hastily put on in others.
The Gigi of the title is played by Leslie Caron, in a career defining performance. Precocious and free-spirited, the stuffiness of the turn-of-the-century Parisian bourgeoisie hardly fits the 15-year-old — but embedded in her consciousness is the idea that she will, someday, marry into a wealthy household. Such notions bore her, her frequent courtesan training by her Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans) more a chore than a pastime. She would prefer to let her hair down and frolic around the grounds of the city, spending the evening with her loving grandmother (Hermione Gingold) and their bon vivant family friend Gaston (Louis Jordan).
As Gigi comes of age, though, Gaston finds himself in an unexpected tizzy. A known womanizer, he is considered to be an untrustworthy man quicker to get into a date’s pants than into her heart. But we, nor the protagonist and her cohorts, see this fiendish persona, only looking at him as a charming lonely heart. So when he begins developing feelings for Gigi, he’s shocked — he’s never felt love like this before. All of the wealthy are so stuffy, so mannered; Gigi is genuine, unfiltered. And as she begins to get better acquainted with herself as she ages, she starts to feel the same way.
Gigi sees its protagonist age from clumsy teenager to assured young woman, and Caron, more than convincing, is luminous as she adapts to the subtle changes in her character. The film goes through long stretches of banalities, and those dull stretches only occur because Caron isn’t in every scene. When she is, though, she lights up the screen — she’s a movie star of the highest quality, even if she never made it very far following the success of this film.
So much of Gigi works — its cast is comprised of character actors who strike gold time and time again (Gingold is terrifically doting, Jeans hilariously shrill), and the storyline often manages to draw us in with its romantic heart. But it spends too much time worrying about Gigi’s transformation and not enough time grappling with its romantic aspects, making the eventual courtship between Gigi and Gaston feel rushed and not as passionate as it would otherwise seem. With an extra twenty minutes or so, the union could have struck us with the same sort of immediacy Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard did in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The haste makes it all feel slightly inevitable, coming along without much excitement or the necessarily sappy oohs-and-ahs. It’s a disappointing component, especially considering that mostly everything beforehand (aside from the forgettable songs) keeps a stable balance of escapism, froth, and wit.
Instabilities aside, though, Gigi spends the majority of its run-time making friends, not enemies — its unblinking optimism is infectious, and Vincente Minnelli’s strong-handed direction makes it feel concrete instead of feathery. I just wish it were willing to take more risks and metamorphosize its characters into people rather than cutouts of people. This is the kind of film where a romantic angle can truly flourish; it’s too bad Gigi plays it safe and hits all the predicted notes. B-