Movie Review: Gigi (1958)

Yes, doggonit, a great sense-of-life film __ 9/10
Reviewed by Brian Wright

GigiAunt Alicia: Love, my dear Gigi, is a thing of beauty like a work of art, and like a work of art it is created by artists.

Gigi: Who gave it to you, Aunt?
Aunt Alicia: A king!
Gigi: A great king?
Aunt Alicia: No, a little one. Great kings do not give very large stones.
Gigi: Why not?
Aunt Alicia: In my opinion it’s because they don’t feel they have to.
Gigi: Well, who does give the valuable jewels?
Aunt Alicia: Who? Oh the shy, the proud, and the social climbers, because they think it’s a sign of culture. But it doesn’t matter who gives them, as long as you never wear anything second-rate. Wait for the first-class jewels, Gigi. Hold on to your ideals.

Screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner
Novel by Colette
Directed by Vincente Minnelli

Leslie Caron … Gigi
Maurice Chevalier … Honoré Lachaille
Louis Jourdan … Gaston Lachaille
Hermione Gingold … Madame Alvarez
Eva Gabor … Liane d’Exelmans
Jacques Bergerac … Sandomir
Isabel Jeans … Aunt Alicia
John Abbott … Manuel

This is a movie that in 1958 won nine Oscars, one in every category it was nominated for, including Best Picture and Best Director. Oddly enough, none of the actors was nominated; my humble opinion is at least three of them should have been: Isabel Jeans (Aunt Alicia), Hermione Gingold (Madame Alvarez), and Maurice Chevalier (Honoré Lachaille)—and in approximately that order. This is a modest MGM production, but what it lacks in budget it more than makes up for in vivacity.

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The setting is 1900, Paris, France, a centennial year, and from what I’ve read, the people in the West at the turn of the 20th century were flush with excitement and hope. Ayn Rand speaks of the early years in the 20th century and the late 19th as a time of progress… and immense confidence. The Industrial Revolution had raised living standards, the old monarchies had died, there were few wars, science was discovering cures for disease and keys to the universe. Art and culture reflected an animating spirit, nowhere more so than in the City of Love, Paris.

We are introduced to Gigi (Leslie Caron) as a schoolgirl under the care of her grandmother Madame Alvarez and her grandmother’s sister Aunt Alicia. Incredibly wealthy gentleman Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jordan) is a friend of the family through his uncle Honoré (Chevalier)—Honoré was once in love with Madame Alvarez. Gaston lives at the pinnacle of the social world, goes to all the clubs, with women galore, many wishing to be the one he will settle down with. But as conveyed at the beginning of the film in a duet between Gaston and his uncle, Gaston ‘is bored.’ With women, with his inventions and business, with politics, with the whole social scene.

There’s one exception: Gaston relishes his frequent social visits with Ms. Alvarez and with her charming granddaughter Gigi, with whom he plays cards and just generally banters around. He is also fond of Aunt Alicia, who has quite the reputation as a rich and romantic grand dame and who has also taken it upon herself to cultivate the gangly Gigi into the essential lady of society. The scenes where Alicia is instructing Gigi on how to sit, how to pour tea, how to walk, how to assess valuables, and so on are precious and memorable. There’s a little bit of My Fair Lady to the relationship. What’s more, regarding sex and love, there is none of the prudishness attending English and American customs: “Sex and love are good, men and women both are very fond of them, and should be.”

Gigi seems initially hopeless. Then the story moves forward, you begin to see how she brightens upon Gaston’s visits, and you see him laughing and genuinely enjoying himself, taking great delight in Gigi’s youthful enthusiasm. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the general direction of the plot, but who cares? Gigi is less about plot and more about enjoying the scenery, even contemplating the importance of romance in the grand scheme of the cosmos. All the sex is implied, but, for a 1958 American movie, it is heavily implied. [I suspect one of the reasons, if not the reason, for Gigi‘s success has to do with its giving our uptight A.P.E.[1] citizens a socially acceptable release from the 50s’ wretched burden of sexual repression, and doing so in such a floral, positive way.]

Ayn Rand also identified a concept she called “sense of life.” It’s an intangible quality about a person that is expressed in the way he or she walks, how they smile, how they hold themselves, whether they exude optimism and confidence, and so on. In the movie Gigi, written by Colette and developed by the famous Alan Jay Lerner, we experience a benevolent sense of life—not so much in any particular character but in the events as they unfold: walking in the park, going to the seaside, engaging in fine conversation, taking time for gardens and museums, dressing well and colorfully, experiencing the finest foods, enjoying the nightlife, seemingly the entire human population looking at life as a wondrous pleasure.

That kind of attitude is contagious. Despite the early protestations of Gaston about boredom, everything about the story and the settings is richly textured and full of music. In times like ours, we do well to view such films. It helps to keep our imaginations fired with the possible, with the light at the end of the—so, so unnecessary—tunnel. Like the Law of Attraction, what one imagines is what will come. And maybe it will stay.

A word on the performances: Leslie Caron as Gigi does a fine job, in particular, making her transition from awkward teenager to womanly Cinderella at the ball in only a couple of months of story time. I find myself captivated though by the dialog of Aunt Alicia and equally that of her sister Madame Alvarez. The cadence, the propriety, the wit, and who knows what all combine to hold my attention like a tractor beam. I’m hard pressed to tell you why. Perhaps it’s the dignity of their presence, or the presence of their dignity: something ineffable.

Here’s a remarkable reaction, if one is caught up in our own A.P.E.-derived culture: When the sisters discover that full grown Gaston is smitten with their little teen angel, to the point of actually considering marriage, what do they do? Are they offended at the age difference, do they think the man is a perv, do they double down to protect the kid’s virginity? Hell no! They work double time to prepare Gigi in the ways of the world and get the deal done. I know, I know, there’s a lot of money involved, but even so, in modern America any man 30-40 who so much as hints at a sexual or romantic interest in a 17- or 18-year old girl is reported as a sex offender, a SWAT team arrives, busts down the door, and hauls him away with a taser up his ass.

Gigi reminds us that love and sex and other beautiful things are what life is all about… not to be touched by the hate-trapped miniscule of soul. Splendiferous.

[1] A.P.E. = American Puritan Ethic, a term coined by Allan Sherman in his 1978 book The Rape of the A.P.E.

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