Gigi (1958)

2010 #95
Vincente Minnelli | 111 mins | TV (HD) | PG / G

GigiGigi is a film about largely horrid people doing morally dubious things. But of course it’s a musical from the ’50s, so it all has a veneer of loveliness and respectability.

It begins with an elder gentleman singing Thank Heaven for Little Girls; not because, say, they bring a youthful joy to old age, but because they’re a constant source of new young ladies for him to have affairs with — and not chaste, romantic affairs either. Actor Maurice Chevalier may have a twinkle in his eye and a conspiratorial tone with the audience, speaking directly to camera, but he’s playing a dirty old man really. Most of the film’s characters share his moral compass.

There are two exceptions, more or less. Gigi herself (Leslie Caron) is one, an innocent teen who isn’t as wise as her years, despite her grandmother (Hermione Gingold) and great aunt (Isabel Jeans) schooling her in preparation to be, essentially, a serial mistress. If one were to be unkind, you might say courtesan — the majority of women in the film are or were in the business of going out with men for money, status, etc; one man at a time (mostly), but on a serial basis. Gigi isn’t a simpering romantic, though, she just wants to have fun, and in her delightfully clumsy way can’t cope with her great aunt’s rules and restrictions.

The other decent character is Gaston (Louis Jourdan), although it takes him some time to get there. He’s super-rich, bored with everything, egged on and tutored in ‘relationships’ by the aforementioned dirty old man. Gaston would rather spend his time playing cards or larking about with Gigi; they may be related, I’m not sure. I hope not, because (spoilers!) Dirty old man with woodeventually Gaston realises he loves Gigi and her training is stepped up so she can become his latest conquest. I won’t go into the details of the ending, but their part of the story ends well.

It doesn’t for the others. Not that it ends badly, but no one else changes their ways, despite the occasional hint they might. This is probably a good thing — it wouldn’t be particularly realistic if everyone reformed to the ways of Goodness and Honour. And there’s nothing wrong with a musical that tackles subjects outside the expected soppy romanticism — in fairness, many stage musicals are more risque, in part if not whole, but it gets removed for the film versions — and Gigi seems no exception, because while many of these activities and attitudes are quite amoral, it’s all given a lovely sheen. I’d excuse anyone who thought Gigi and Gaston were engaged when she agrees to be his whore (in fact — spoilers! — it’s only later he sees the error of his ways and proposes).

Part of the tonal clash — between the characters’ behaviour and the film’s ’50s niceness — comes in the musical numbers, most of which are very funny. Thank Heaven for Little Girls may be sullied, but It’s a Bore, The Parisians, The Night They Invented Champagne, and particularly I Remember It Well, are all very enjoyable with wonderful lyrics. In the red roomI’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore is also a nice change of pace, celebrating old age for a change.

The film also looks the part, exquisitely detailed sets and costumes supported by genuine Paris locations, all shot vibrantly. It leaps off the screen, especially in HD — in particular, the home of Gigi’s grandmother, which must be the reddest room ever seen.

Gigi scored a then-record-breaking nine Oscars in 1959 (only to be beaten the next year), including many I’m certain it deserved — partly because I’ve not even heard of most of the films it was up against, but also because it is an entertaining musical, just one with, I would say, uncertain morals. Whether this makes a welcome change for the genre or is an unpleasant undermining of it is surely down to each viewer’s preference.

4 out of 5