I have firmly believed, for the past few years, that Hollywood would have been a lot poorer had it not been for its Europeans. All the way from writers and composers to directors—and, of course, the most visible, actors. Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Hedy Lamarr, Rossano Brazzi, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Michael Caine, Curt Jurgens… and, one of my absolute favourites, the very handsome Louis Jourdan. I remember, as a young teenager, being completely bowled over by him in Decameron Nights, Three Coins in the Fountain, and The Swan. And this film, the quintessential Louis Jourdan one, about a wealthy young man who finds love in an unlikely place.
It was with sorrow that I learnt that M. Jourdan passed away earlier this month—on February 14, 2015, at the age of 93. Time for another tribute, I thought (and why must deaths come so fast and thick among my favourites from the yesteryears? It was just over a month back that Rod Taylor died). It seemed fitting to rewatch Gigi, and to dedicate this review to the memory of Louis Jourdan.
The eponymous Gigi is a teenaged girl (Leslie Caron) who lives in the Paris of 1900 with her grandmother and her mother. The latter is a very minor actress (whom we never see, only hear practicing her singing) at the Opera Comique. The person whom Gigi is really close to—and who is in loco parentis, really—is her grandmother, Mamita (Hermione Gingold), Madame Alvarez. Mamita is firm but kind, affectionate, occasionally indulgent, and genuinely very fond of Gigi.
We follow Gigi from the park—where she plays with schoolfriends, all giggly teenagers like her—and into the rather shabby apartment building where she lives. As she sweeps into the house, making her way about like a rowdy whirlwind, as she’s admonished by her grandmother to behave like a lady, as she sprawls and slouches—we realise that Gigi is really more a vivacious, unselfconscious child than the poised young lady her Grandma would like her to be.
Aiding Mamita in this endeavour to groom Gigi is Mamita’s reclusive sister, Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans). From the conversations (not in the presence of Gigi—though it soon becomes obvious that Gigi, for all her innocence, does know), the truth emerges: this is a family of courtesans. Aunt Alicia has been the most successful, having had affairs with everybody from maharajas to sultans to blueblooded aristocrats across the length and breadth of Europe. Now retired, Aunt Alicia has locked herself into an apartment, where just about the only visitor she receives is Gigi…
…who comes every Tuesday to lunch with Aunt Alicia. And not merely eat a meal, but learn how to eat it properly. How to daintily consume an ortolan, how to eat lobsters. Followed by lessons on recognizing and assessing gemstones; on selecting cigars; on correctly pouring coffee—basically, on being a seductive, attractive, desirable courtesan. All for love, Gigi is told.
Gigi hates it. She goes along with it, but every now and then she lets her boredom and her reluctance show. This just isn’t her cup of tea.
What Gigi would much rather do is spend time with the very wealthy and famous Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan). Gaston is a family friend—he knows Mamita well, and he’s literally seen Gigi grow up. In fact, it’s obvious from their very first interaction we see that Gaston regards Gigi somewhat in the light of a little sister. There’s horseplay between them, with him literally dragging Gigi into his carriage, taking her off to have a drink, and generally treating her like the imp she is.
Gaston even takes Gigi off to the Palais de Glace, the ice skating rink, where he points out the lovely Liane D’Exelmans (Eva Gabor), whom Gigi—an avid reader of the tabloids—already knows is Gaston’s mistress. Liane is learning to skate, in the arms of a handsome instructor (Jacques Bergerac). Gigi, when called upon by Gaston to comment upon Liane (he is obviously proud of Liane, and expects Gigi to reinforce that pride), says “She’s common”. This bursts Gaston’s bubble, especially when Gigi adds, in response to a question from him, that Liane is both common as in ordinary, as well as common as in coarse.
And that evening, at a party at the buzzing and busy Maxim’s, where he’s been invited by his old roué of an uncle, Honoré Lachaille (the inimitable Maurice Chevalier), Gaston takes a close, hard look at Liane. Yes, he realises as he watches her: she’s all fizz and pep and prettiness, but she’s not thinking of him. Not at all.
By the next morning, when Honoré comes visiting, Gaston hasn’t merely hired a private detective to keep an eye on Liane’s activities, he’s also received information from the PI. Liane has gone off into the countryside, to a discreet little inn, with that skating instructor of hers.
Gaston and Honoré have a brief debate over the most prudent course of action: something that will help Gaston save face, and yet show Liane in no uncertain terms that their affair is over. The result is that nephew and uncle arrive at the inn, see Liane and her skating instructor sharing a passionate kiss, and then—when Liane excuses herself for a while—pounce on the skating instructor and tell him to get lost. Gaston gives the man some money and boots him out before proceeding to leave.
And, the next morning, it’s all over the newspapers: Liane D’Exelmans, after being dumped by Gaston Lachaille, has tried to commit suicide. This, apparently, is nothing new; she’s done it several times before, always taking a judiciously calculated dose of poison which will get her name into the papers but won’t kill her.
Meanwhile, Gaston is advised by Honoré to make it appear that he does not mourn the breakup with Liane. Party, paint the town red, enjoy yourself to the hilt, advises Honoré. So Gaston hosts a series of parties and revelries and whatnot, everywhere from Maxim’s to the Opera—which he buys out for one night. There are balls, masked parties, concerts, everything—all proving, as the tabloids agree—that Gaston is by no means missing Liane.
And he isn’t. The problem, however, is that even all these amusements, all these parties and gay celebrations, aren’t doing anything to ease Gaston’s sense of ennui. He’s bored.
To try and relieve the boredom somewhat, Gaston decides to pay Mamita and Gigi a visit. Have a glass of champagne with Mamita, play a game of cards with Gigi, even if she always beats him (mostly because she cheats).
So he goes off to visit them, and Gigi assails him with all the gossip she’s been hearing about him. Is it true that he’s also going off to Trouville? Oh, how she would love to go to Trouville!
Gigi, of course, does win, so she and her grandmother go off with Gaston for the weekend. While Gigi and Gaston enjoy themselves riding a donkey on the beach and generally behaving—as they always do—like overgrown children—Mamita bumps into an old flame, Honoré, with whom she has a pleasant (eventually) chat about the last time they had met.
When they return to Paris (minus Gaston, who stays on in Trouville for a few more days), Mamita is summoned by an imperious Aunt Alicia. Aunt Alicia has, thanks to the newspapers which follow Gaston’s every move, come to know of the trip to Trouville. This is an important opportunity, says Aunt Alicia. Gaston is currently unattached; he hasn’t a mistress. If they plan carefully, and get down to grooming Gigi well, she could be offered to Gaston. He can take care of her superbly.
Gigi’s lunches at Aunt Alicia’s are shifted to everyday instead of every Tuesday, and our poor little heroine is put through her paces, being corrected and tweaked into shape every minute of the day. Astringent is got for her face; gowns—and not the blingy ones Gigi would much rather have—are ordered. And Gigi hasn’t the faintest idea whom her grandmother and the grandmother’s sister plan to foist her on.
How will it all turn out? Will Gaston—who has never thought of Gigi in the form of a possible mistress—agree to this proposal of Mamita’s and Alicia’s? And what of Gigi herself? How will she take to the idea of suddenly going from a completely platonic relationship to one such as this?
I tend to not generally care for most Hollywood musicals (I suppose Hindi cinema, which has perfected the art of incorporating songs into a film, has spoilt me). I too often find that Hollywood musicals have too thin a storyline and the songs coming in too fast and too often to allow one to really get into the story (not that there aren’t exceptions: The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof are among the musicals I enjoy both for the songs as well as for the film in itself).
Gigi falls somewhere in between the two extremes. Unlike Singing in the Rain or Oklahoma!, it’s not just one song after another and very little story in between the songs. There is a story here, about the coming of age of a girl—and the realization of two people about how they really feel about each other. It’s not a fantastic story; it’s not the sort of film that will leave you remembering not just the songs but also, just as vividly, the plot (as Fiddler on the Roof does, for me). It is, however, still very enjoyable and should certainly rank right up there among the most memorable musicals ever made.
What I liked about this film:
The songs, especially among them Thank heaven for little girls, She’s not thinking of me, The night they invented champagne, and I remember it well. Besides the fact that the music is good, the lyrics (by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe) are delightful. Here’s a sample from I remember it well; Honoré and Mamita, sitting by the seaside in Trouville, reminisce about the old days; or, to be specific, the last time they met, years ago:
Honoré: We met at nine.
Mamita: We met at eight.
Honoré: I was on time.
Mamita: No, you were late.
Honoré: Ah, yes. (sheepish smile). I remember it well. We dined with friends.
Mamita: We dined alone.
Honoré: A tenor sang.
Mamita: A baritone.
Honoré: Ah, yes. I remember it well.
And so on and so forth, his memory—though he insists he remembers that long-ago evening well—obviously not quite what it once was. A delightful song, witty yet eventually also bittersweet.
Leslie Caron, who plays Gigi superbly. She is bubbly and unselfconscious through most of a the film, a gamine, tousled girl who sits with her legs up and has no qualms about saying just what comes into her head—and, in the last quarter hour or so, she is the poised and beautiful young lady who begins to understand just what she feels about Gaston.
Louis Jourdan. He’s so handsome, and his performance as the jaded young man who suddenly realises what he really wants is good. Gigi may be a rather female-centric film (Gigi does dominate the story), but Gaston plays an important part in it—and Louis Jourdan is the perfect Gaston.
RIP, M Jourdan. You will be missed.
P.S. And no, there’s really nothing I don’t like about Gigi. It’s a very pleasant, sweet little film, and one I can watch again and again. Not something I’d say about too many musicals.