GIGI (1958)

gigiIt’s always startling to me when I know a song and don’t know why. Within the first few minutes of watching Gigi, our most recent Oscar-winning film, this happened to me. I found myself singing along to “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” a decidedly creepy ditty. But I knew it word for word. In the film, it’s sung by Honoré Lachaille, a charming devil who is both a character in the film and an overarching narrator. He’s a cad and a ladies’ man, but he also sets the stage to explain a bit about life in high society Paris to us as the viewers. Honoré tells the tale of privileged young men like his nephew Gaston, who may marry if they choose or opt not to. For women and girls, in this depiction, it’s really not a question of whether or not they want to marry but whether or not they are chosen. Pretty bleak and archaic, but made lighter and more digestible with the joviality of song!

In doing this project, I try to watch without prejudice, I really do. Having said that, I will admit that this is the movie that has generated the least enthusiasm to date. There have been some Best Pictures that I was genuinely excited to watch, usually old favorites. Others have felt less thrilling going in, but I did feel curious enough to want to see them. And since we are discussing my own biases, I might as well explain that the 1950s is probably the era of film that interests me the least. Golden Age Hollywood- that is pre-World War II- has its own mystique. Watching these movies I get to watch cinema make itself up as it goes along. At the very least, movies from that era are a glimpse into a world so far removed from my own life and experience that watching them scratches some itch even if they aren’t absolutely entertaining per se. Later, the New Hollywood movement would use the medium to greater artistic effect, which in turn led the way for modern blockbusters. Sandwiched in between the heyday of the Greatest Generation and the counterculture upheavals of the mid 60s, there are years that are, to me, old enough to feel dated but not quite old enough to be interesting. Yes, of course there were some indisputable masterpieces made during that time. And I’m sure some of you reading this are yelling, calling me an unlearned Philistine or some such thing, to whom I say this: I did use the word ‘bias’, didn’t I? I never claimed to be entirely rational about this.

So that brings us to 1958’s Gigi, which sat in its Netflix envelope for quite a long time (although your bloggers have been managing some pretty major life events, it would be fair to add). As Katy mentioned, this story about a teenager in a family of professional sugar babies in fin de siecle Paris opens with Honoré, played by Maurice Chevalier, who is the best thing in this picture. (Second place: Hermione Gingold as Gigi’s grandmother, who would later go on to the titular role in “Winter of the Witch”.) Every moment he is on screen, he seems absolutely delighted to be making a movie. I’ve never seen him in a movie before, is he always like this? Halfway through the movie, we find out that Grandmother and Honoré have a history of their own! They sing a song about it (of course), and I figured the movie is setting up a payoff where they get back together. Can Grandmama be the one to finally tame veteran playboy Honoré? As it turns out, no, it is never mentioned again.

I can’t help but read what Mouse wrote and laugh. It almost sounds implausible – surely there isn’t an actual family of professional sugar babies?! But indeed, there is. One of the strangest parts of this film is that reference is made to Gigi’s mother who we never see but we do hear. She is a singer of some sort, presumably performing actively and too busy to be bothered with any of the goings-on of the cast at large – but on more than one occasion, the door to a side room is opened and we can hear her singing through her scales. It’s odd, and I kept thinking the mother would pop out and assume a greater role in both her daughter and her mother’s life. Again, there was no payoff here. It was simply not to be. With so many random songs blurted out throughout the film, I had hoped she might treat us to one that explained her absence at least. Too much to ask.

There also seems to be no mention of Gigi’s father at any point. I wonder if we are to assume her mother, like her great aunt, is a member of the sugar baby crew. As for love interest Gaston, I initially thought he was going to be more of a father figure. But alas, he has different intentions for the young woman he has known so many years. Mouse and I could agree on one thing – the single best aspect of this film is its daring use of color. Bold, bright, striking – and maybe Mouse can say a little more about that.

To respond to that, I wish I were more knowledgeable about the history of film processing technique, but suffice it to say that Gigi epitomizes the look of older color films. The filmmakers really take full advantage of the saturated look by dressing the sets in intense hues, most notably in Gigi’s living room where the wallpaper is red, so very red. Expect to see bouquets of flowers and dresses in every color. Also, clearly a lot of attention to Uncle Honoré’s bower, his over-the-top art nouveau babe-lair.

I liked having Gigi’s mother remain an unseen character. And if it seemed like there was a lot in this film not being directly shown or stated, I think that may have had something to do with the subject matter. This is a film about women coming to an arrangement with men involving sexual relationships for their material benefit, and the filmmakers would surely have had to tread lightly to observe the industry standards of the day. Yes there is something vaguely unsavory about these men buzzing around an underage girl waiting for her to age into their mating pool. But I have a sense that had they the liberty to be more explicit with the creepiness, the true-love payoff would have been more satisfying. Or perhaps it would just have come across as even more off-putting.

Gaston’s character irked me and struck me as vampiric. He has so much at his fingertips, but he flits about proclaiming how everything is such a bore. It’s hard to feel much empathy for this obscenely privileged bon vivant. The development of his love relationship with Gigi seems born of his own ennui. Sure, she is fascinating – because she is barely formed. There is light and life in her that I got the sense that he was feeding on. I wasn’t quite sure what she got from him, save the approving nod of her grandmother and aunt. I did like that her character was self-possessed enough to let him know she wouldn’t be chewed up and spit out by what her relatives had in mind for them, but the plot point of marriage being what legitimized her and indicated his true, real love for her was really annoying to me. I almost wanted to see if the film had received any funding from the Family Institute or another religious right organization. It was also annoying to me that Gaston, as a grown man, seemed to take so long and need so much drama to determine how he really felt or what he could really provide for Gigi. Parts of this film just made me think about a better adjusted Lolita, or a French Woody Allen. Sure, our characters aren’t quite that stomach-turning – but they also didn’t really loom large in my heart as protagonists in a love story for the ages. But I guess we can always thank heaven for little girls – specifically for their capacity to offer grown men perpetual do overs and rebirths.

Well, I suppose I should have something more insightful to say than that movies like this just seem to me like what comes on TV after cartoons are over. Instead, let me offer a counter-recommendation. You can watch Gigi if you want, but you should definitely see Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, a  documentary portrait of the nihilistic punk performer in his final days, directed by- this is not a joke- the guy who made Old School and the Hangover movies. See the real GG.

Also nominated in 1958:
Auntie Mame
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The Defiant Ones
Separate Table

 Next film: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

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