This was a classic Movie Musical that I actually kind of liked – even though the plot is a little disturbing.
Based on a 1944 novella by French author Colette, Gigi is the story of a Parisian girl of 1900. Gigi (Leslie Caron) lives in genteel poverty with her grandmother, Madame Alvarez (Hermine Gingold), but has regular lessons in good breeding and etiquette with her great aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans). Aunt Alicia is grooming her for a career as a courtesan; but at the top of the film, Gigi is too young to grasp that, and too spunky to be “ladylike”. She doesn’t have many friends; her closest companion is the suave Gaston (Louis Jourdan), an old family friend and Paris’ most eligible bachelor. Gaston regularly visits Gigi and Mme. Alvarez for a chance to let his hair down a little; their flat is cozy and quaint, and Gigi is like a lively kid sister. But soon Aunt Alicia and Mme. Alvarez notice how Gigi’s getting old enough to start her new life, and Gaston has no mistress, so maybe they could encourage the pair down that path…
So yeah, the plot is pretty icky if you think about it.
However, there are some details that I think softened the blow for me. One big thing is Gigi and Gaston’s ultimate reaction to the suggested plan – they actually have started to feel something for each other, but are conflicted about the whole courtesan lifestyle itself. It’s what’s expected of them both, but neither is very satisfied by it – ultimately they choose a different path. Leslie Caron also manages to retain a little bit of the childish Gigi in her performance of Gigi as “a grown-up” – the childish Gigi is playful, feisty, clever, and prone to a delightful giggle, and the grown-up Gigi still retains that wit and that spunky giggle. It’s that very giggle that no doubt makes Gaston a little uneasy about things.
There are also two absolutely delightful songs – both of which involve Maurice Chevalier, who plays Honoré, Gaston’s uncle (and Mme. Alvarez’ old boyfriend) and who serves as a sort of narrator throughout. The first is “I Remember It Well”, a song that’s become a near-standard; it’s a duet with Mme. Alvarez, as they reminisce about their old romance and Mme. Alvarez has to correct him on most of the details. But I was touched by the end – Mme. Alvarez seems miffed that Honoré has forgotten so much, but by the end, she chimes in with a word about her own memories, which are just as warm and rosy as his own.
Even more charming for me was a later solo number for Honoré – “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore”. This was a new song for me – it’s something Honoré sings after Gaston comes to him in a café begging for advice about his latest romantic misadventure. Honoré counsels him, and after Gaston runs off, Honoré muses about how freeing it is to be too old to care about romantic drama any more. I was delighted by this – over the past several years, my roommates have tended to be somewhat younger than me, and I’ve had a spectator’s view of their own romantic ups and downs -and have gradually gotten more and more relieved that I just plain don’t feel like going through that much fuss myself. “I’ve never been so comfortable before,” Honoré sings at one point, and I instantly thought “yes, me too!” Honoré ends the scene happily whistling the tune as he strolls down the street, and I’ve caught myself whistling that tune myself again and again.
In a way, you could say that everyone in the film is on Honoré’s side, and maybe that’s why I like it. Honoré and Mme. Alvarez are done with the aggravation that the whole courtesan life caused them, and are content to let the bad stuff go and keep the good memories. And the younger characters are seeing the flaws in the courtesan system and want to try something new – something that will make them just as happy and comfortable. So in a sense, everyone is rejecting the courtesan life, and that may ultimately have let me give that plot point a pass and focus on the Parisian scenery porn and the music.