**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A-
starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan, Hermione Gingold
screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, based on the novel by Colette
directed by Vincente Minnelli
**/**** Image C+ Sound C
starring Gaby Morlay, Danièle Delorme, Jean Tissier, Yvonne de Bray
scteenplay by Pierre Laroche, based on the novel by Colette
directed by Jacqueline Audry
by Alex Jackson How weird is it that Vincente Minnelli's Gigi won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1958, when four years later Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Lolita barely got the seal of approval? I suppose we shouldn't underestimate the power of sex to scandalize when it isn't disguised as love. In Gigi, wealthy Parisian playboy Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) is fixated on 15-year-old Gigi (27-year-old Leslie Caron), the granddaughter of family friend Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold). He likes her precisely because she is still a child. Most of the women Gaston goes with are accustomed and entitled to a certain standard of living. By contrast, Gigi can appreciate being spoiled. Gaston also admires her irreverence--how she can cheat at cards and tease him about it, or how she can effortlessly tell him off after he insults her dress. She hasn't learned how to be a lady yet; her rough edges haven't been smoothed out and she's capable of challenging him. There's a life to her that's drained out of most of the other women he meets long before he gets there.
Gaston's ephebophilia is more complete than that of Lolita's Humbert Humbert. His idealization of Gigi transcends mere sexual attraction: Gigi's youth and inexperience make her the perfect woman. She complements him such that when he is with her, Gaston is actualized as a man and feels personally fulfilled. I guess you could call this love. At the very least, it goes beyond some inborn biological urge to procreate. While I would be cautious about calling Gigi deeper than most romantic comedies, it is refreshing to see a movie romance, particularly one from the Code era, that can actually be talked about in terms of emotional needs.
But as you might expect, what Gigi sees in Gaston is considerably more ambiguous. Her grandmother is training her to land a husband (or a man to take her on as his mistress) so that her future will be provided for. Gigi has cold feet about going to live with Gaston, not because she doesn't like him, but because she's afraid he'll toss her aside, like the other women he's courted, once he grows bored with her. That's her central conflict. There's no confusion as to whether or not Gaston is "The One," since this is Gigi's first romance and she doesn't have any other suitors. As she sees it, her options are basically Gaston or no man at all. "Gaston, I've been thinking," she says, "I'd rather be miserable with you than without you." He may love her and Gigi may return it with a similar kind of emotion, but they're not speaking the same language. She's simply not experienced enough to understand love the way that Gaston does.
Gaston has all the power in this relationship. If he were merely rich and Gigi's spunky spontaneity were born of her working-class roots, then perhaps she'd be an ideal foil for him. In the neo-Cinderella fable Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts's hooker character Vivian could presumably leave her millionaire boyfriend Edward at any time. As a hooker, she has learned to fend for herself and doesn't necessarily need a man to keep her. Moreover, Vivian's irreverence towards high society, regardless of its probable origins as a defense mechanism, evolved into a conscious ethical position. "With friends like these, no wonder you came looking for me," she tells Edward. As a result, her irreverence is a liberating philosophy for Edward to adopt, and she gains a measure of control and power in their relationship.
Gigi's spunk, on the other hand, is born of youth and inexperience. We don't get the sense that she's consciously rejecting her grandmother's values and the world with which Gaston has grown bored. She just doesn't know any better. And because she's so young, she genuinely seems to be dependent on Gaston. Her fears of rejection are hardly unfounded: if things don't work out, she doesn't exactly have anything to fall back on. Gigi's continued survival is contingent on Gaston always loving her. Too, because she has never loved another man, heartbreak is not in her emotional repertoire; should Gaston dump her, she'll likely find financial devastation to be the least of her problems. In short, Gigi has lots more to lose in this scenario than Gaston.
At the beginning of the film, Gaston's uncle Honoré Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier) sings "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," musing that "they grow up in the most delightful way." For better or worse, this song is the lasting legacy of Gigi, turning up most memorably in Barry Levinson's 1997 political satire Wag the Dog. Modern viewers automatically intuit that it's lecherous; the film's defenders will oftentimes insist that we need to think of the era in which Gigi was released as well as the era it depicts and not go looking for perversion around every corner. Yet loving little girls, preferring them to grown women even, is the entire point of the film. You cannot extricate the song from the rest of Gigi. Indeed, Chevalier reprises it in the very last scene.
Adapted from the novel by scandalous French author Colette, Gigi is hardly a perverse film, but I wouldn't consider this lack of perversity to be a virtue. Its misogyny is institutionalized, has metastasized right into its bones. Comparing it to the kinky Lolita, I'm reminded of Julie Christie's line to Shelley Duvall in McCabe & Mrs. Miller about how prostitution is like marriage except you get to keep a little money for yourself. Gigi is a good response to the oversimplification that turning women into sex objects necessarily oppresses them. Yes, this movie is fifty years old and it should be expected that its gender politics would have dated. But those gender politics are really dated, and there is no way to view the film today without addressing them. Whenever I hear the argument that we need to understand the period in which a movie was made and watch it in the proper historical context, it smacks of desperation. Great films manage to adapt themselves for the times, and in the cruel world of natural selection, Gigi just doesn't have what it takes. Not surprisingly, it never made the AFI's Top 100 and is rarely sought out by anyone other than Minnelli completists and goofballs like myself committed to that adolescent cinephile pursuit of seeing every Best Picture winner.
Like blackface and racial caricature, however, Gigi's '50s-era misogyny lends it much-needed bite while simultaneously alienating the mass audience. Gigi announces her love for Gaston, whereupon he takes her to dinner at famed restaurant Maxim. There, she tries her best to pour Gaston his coffee, choose and light his cigar, and do all the other lady-like things her grandmother and great aunt taught her to do. She has become precisely the sort of woman Gaston was eager to get away from. Enraged, he drags her home as though returning a piece of defective merchandise. All the while she is crying, not knowing what she did wrong. Gaston subsequently takes a nighttime stroll through Paris--he's cooling off and doing some deep thinking. Afterwards, he proposes marriage to Gigi. This development is so swift and the image of Gaston's silhouette marching along the moonlit streets of Paris so ominous that we begin to doubt their relationship will work out. Minnelli gives us a happy ending, but one with a darkly bittersweet undercurrent. It looks like these two are going to have serious problems. As a musical, Gigi has blithely idealized this diseased arrangement; with this sequence, it legitimizes the dated gender politics as corrupt and becomes mildly subversive. There simply can't be any "happily ever after" in a system like this.
Jacqueline Audry's 1949 non-musical, French-language Gigi is predictably darker and more realistic than the Vincente Minnelli adaptation of the same material. Here, Gigi (Daniele Delorme) is a much more authentic 15-year-old girl: compared to Leslie Caron's counterpart, she's less rebellious, less individualistic, and less independent, relying as she does on her grandmother (Yvonne de Bray) for emotional support. We get the idea, notably absent in the later version, that she has spent her entire life in her grandmother's care and does not have this strong a bond with anybody else. Gaston's (Frank Villard) preoccupation with her is then more blatantly and undeniably ephebophilic. He's interested in her mainly for her pubescent body, not so much for her youthful spirit. And nobody has any illusions that he's after anything else. It's clear that Grandma is raising Gigi to please rich men--the film even includes a shot where she cups and admires Gigi's budding breasts. Excusing, while in some ways paradoxically accentuating, Gaston's perviness is Villard's somnambulistic performance. Jourdan's Gaston sang about being bored, but this Gaston really IS bored. He shows so little interest in anything at all that acquiring Gigi partly seems like a desperate attempt to pull himself out of a stupor.
In truth, if it weren't for the contrast provided by Minnelli's film, Gigi '49 would hardly be worth mentioning. The film is so cynical and matter-of-fact that it doesn't have a lot of fizz. Gigi '58 created some friction by being about exploitation and pretending to be about love; Gigi '49 does not put on any such airs and is therefore bereft of tension. It's somewhat enlightening to see the way that the French respect the audience's maturity and intelligence, whereas the Americans dumb-down and sanitize everything. But make no mistake: Gigi '48 is the lesser of two not-great films and has limited application beyond its novelty value. Warner's cursory DVD/BD treatment of the film is about right.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The 2.40:1, 1080p transfer is a definite improvement on the standard-def reissue Alex was working from (i.e., last year's Two-Disc Special Edition DVD): Gone is the light smear that made Cecil Beaton's ludicrously ornate production design into something of an eyesore, while NTSC's rather hopeless attempt at recreating the film's temperamental Metrocolor palette is brought into relief by a newfound distinctiveness in the various reds that unify the interior of Gigi's grandmother's apartment. (The chairs, for instance, now look maroon and velvety whereas before they had no individual colour or texture.) The whole thing is a gift to Beaton, though the frame still feels a little cramped in HiDef--Gigi just wasn't built for the small screen. Skin tones, meanwhile, are less jaundiced (read: ruddier) than before, and there's a deeper, richer contrast to the image that restores much-needed latitude to the location exteriors. As for the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio, it's pretty spectacular. Lerner & Loewe's score is truly enveloping and there are sporadic fits of directionality, although thankfully not where the dialogue is concerned. If I have a complaint, it's that the movie's soundtrack has been obviously noise-reduced, leaving the occasional moments of silence--a running gag sees the music stopping short whenever Gaston enters a party--to sound like drop-outs, so devoid of room tone are they. Note that with the exception of the retrospective featurette (here upgraded to HD), all of the supplementary material discussed below is presented on BD in 480i but does receive 16x9 enhancement where applicable. For what it's worth, the 1949 Gigi, likewise in standard-def (pillarboxed at 1.33:1), has seen better days, and comes with non-optional English subtitles for its centre-channel soundtrack.-Ed.
Film historian Jeanine Basinger records a feature-length audio commentary wherein she unconvincingly argues that the Gaston/Gigi relationship is in fact egalitarian and that the picture shows Gigi coming of age. She reassures us several times that this is a "charming" film and breezes past the issues brought up by the "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" number. Failing to redeem Gigi as sociology, she resorts to gushing over its performances and craftsmanship. Basinger isn't likely to convert detractors, though she genuinely adores the film and works hard not to squander the opportunity to talk about it. Clips sourced from a recent-vintage interview with Leslie Caron pepper the track, amounting to what I'm guessing is fewer than five minutes total. I enjoyed Caron's baffling admission that she was greatly impressed with Ingmar Bergman at the time and successfully convinced Minnelli to pay homage to him through some billowing curtains.
Video-based extras begin with the propaganda short The Million Dollar Nickel (9 mins.) and the Tom and Jerry cartoon The Vanishing Duck (7 mins.). Its title referring to a postage stamp, The Million Dollar Nickel tells us that the U.S. postal system is the best way to spread democracy and encourages the country's immigrants to write home to their relatives about how great life is in America as a way of combating local rumours and government-sponsored misinformation. You may laugh, yet it's hard to fault the sentiment. In The Vanishing Duck, Tom's yuppie owner buys his wife a singing duckling (voiced by the great Red Coffey) for their anniversary and they go out for dinner to celebrate. While they're gone, Tom tries to eat the duckling, who teams up with Jerry and discovers that they can render themselves invisible with vanishing cream--and so they decide to "have some fun with the pussycat." Hilarity and a surprisingly bleak ending ensue. If The Vanishing Duck is hardly brilliant, I was nevertheless dazzled by the bright colours and 'scope compositions.
Moving on, we find the 1949 non-musical version of Gigi and the 36-minute "Thank Heaven! The Making of Gigi". This doc offers a cleaner linear history of the production's genesis than does Basinger's yakker. An interview with Colette expert Diane LeBow suggests that the aforementioned French adaptation from 1949 is more faithful to the original novella, in that the monomonikered author was interested in the "reality of things." Of Minnelli's Oscar juggernaut, we learn that Leslie Caron recorded her own songs only to have producer Arthur Freed re-record them with a different singer in post. Freed never informed her of this and when she found out through a third party she confronted him at his office. Freed told her to wait outside for a moment, then proceeded to sneak home. One of Caron's recordings is juxtaposed against the finished film's alternative and certainly the singer who replaced her has a much broader range and a more sophisticated sound. Still, while the track that was used is objectively superior, there's something frustrating about not getting to hear the actress's imperfect voice expressing her own emotions in the context of the film. Rounding out the platter is the '58 Gigi's theatrical trailer. Originally published: April 21, 2009.