Saturday, August 8, 2015

Audient Auscars: Gigi

This is the eighth monthly entry in my year-long quest to see the remaining best picture winners I haven't seen, in chronological order.

So this series has definitely run itself into a bit of a rut.

My worst entry came with last month's Around the World in 80 Days, and I can't say that Gigi, the 1958 best picture winner, is a significant amount better. I think the 1950s was just a shitty decade for movies.

In this case I had reason to be wary, as Gigi is actually the only best picture winner I ever started and didn't finish. I started to watch it maybe five years ago, but it being due back at the library (if memory serves) prevented me from finishing. (I probably started watching it too late at night or something.) I watched about 30 minutes at that time, and knew that I wasn't going to love the rest of it when I did eventually get around to watching it.

And I carried in some additional baggage from hearing it discussed recently in my Flickcharters group on Facebook. When I opined last month that Around the World in 80 Days was the worst best picture winner ever -- a claim that may have been exaggerated by the immediate loathing I felt for it, which may subside a little bit over time -- they came back with Gigi as another nominee for that honor. At the time I thought, "Hmm, it doesn't seem particularly distinctive, but I don't think it will probably be horrible either." And then I learned their primary objection to it, which I hadn't realized was even an aspect of the movie when I watched those first 30 minutes: It documents, and perhaps even romanticizes, a Parisian lifestyle in which wealthy men pair up with courtesans who receive all sorts of tutelage in how to be sophisticated society ladies.

What Gigi is about is fairly oblique, but once you know what it's about you can't stop seeing it -- and can't stop being grossed out by it. The film's high "ick" factor is not derived merely from its subject matter, which is obscured by a lot of subtle innuendo and dressed up by some very catchy Lerner and Lowe songs. (In fact, I'm still singing some of them in my head, three days later.) It's derived even more from the fact that the titular courtesan-in-training -- at least I hope she's still in training -- is supposed to be 15 years old.

Leslie Caron is absolutely delightful in the title role, and reminds me a bit of Audrey Hepburn in her spunk and general appearance. But boy does she deserve a better movie than this one, not to mention a movie that will be better to her character than this one.

What may be more shocking than the subject matter of the movie, though, is how little dramatic conflict there is in it. In fact, I can't imagine a movie having lower stakes than these. Narrated by an incurable, incorrigible, extremely self-satisfied old product of the system named Honore Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier), the story is actually about his nephew, Gaston (Louis Jordan). Gaston's big problem is that he's bored. He has every creature comfort a man could want, but life bores him. If hash tags existed then, critics could have dismissed this one with a big #firstworldproblems and been done with it.

So what is the remarkable insight he has to cure his boredom? "I know, I'll try paedophilia!"

It's not quite as simple as that. In fact, the entire first hour of this movie gets squandered away on not much -- and criminally, features very little of Leslie Caron at all. Gaston is miffed that his current courtesan has taken a shine to an ice skating instructor, so much time is spent on how to publicly humiliate her and then keep up public appearances so it does not seem like Gaston is sulking over the rejection.

Stopped caring yet? Yeah, I did ages ago.

So eventually during some card game with Gigi -- with whom Gaston has an avuncular relationship to this point -- he loses a bet to her and is forced to take her on a seaside holiday. Here he falls for her, though we see very little of that. Instead, we spend time on the older Lachaille failing to remember the particulars of his relationship with Gigi's grandmother. (The charming song "I Remember It Well," in which the two swap memories, but his are pretty much the exact opposite of the true details of their first date.)

If it weren't for Gigi's songs, it would truly be nothing at all. But the songs are pretty good, even when they are creepy and pervy ("Thank Heaven for Little Girls").

By the second half, some form of narrative conventionality takes over, sort of, but we're still asked to root for Gigi getting together with a man who intends to rob her of her innocence even while he parades her around in society like a show pony. Somehow, audiences of the time found this appealing.

If I had recognized going in that Gigi was directed by Vincente Minnelli, my warning flags would have gone up a lot earlier. I know this man is revered as a directing treasure and is kind of Hollywood royalty (he was married to Judy Garland, and they gave birth to Liza Minnelli), but I haven't really liked any of his three films I've seen. Those included another best picture winner (An American in Paris) and Meet Me in St. Louis. Each was curiously inert to me in some essential way, and curiously lacking in story. The third time with Minnelli wasn't the charm; in fact, I think it may have been strike three.

One thing I'll say for it, though: As the lead character is named Gaston, it did put that great song from Beauty in the Beast in my head for a couple days. And I was pleased to have a song in my head that reminded me of a movie that was actually good.

We keep the musical theme going with my September best picture winner, 1961's West Side Story. I feel like -- I hope that -- I'll like this one a lot better.

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