|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 04 May 1999|
Partly because it’s a period piece, partly because it deals with subjects that are ever timely and partly because it was so brilliantly made to begin with, ‘Gigi’ hasn’t dated at all. The 1958 musical, which won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Musical Score and six others besides, looks just as charming, sophisticated and humane today as ever. Thanks to its rich-hued DVD transfer, it’s as colorfully beautiful as ever, too.
Adapted from a story by Colette by screenwriter/lyricist Alan J. Lerner, with music by Frederick Loewe and directed by Vincente Minnelli, ‘Gigi’ tells the story of the title character (Leslie Caron), a young Parisian girl on the verge of adulthood at the same time that the century is turning from the 19th to the 20th. Gigi, born of a long line of unmarried ladies, is being trained to be an upscale courtesan by her grandmother (Hermione Gingold) and great-aunt (Isabel Jeans), who made their own way in the world in similar fashion. Gigi’s great friend is wealthy playboy Gaston (Louis Jourdan), who looks upon Gigi as a little sister … until at last he notices that she’s not so little any more. The tale is narrated for us by Gaston’s uncle Honore (Maurice Chevalier), a senior bachelor who long ago had his own relationship with Gigi’s grandmother.
The pace of ‘Gigi’ is wonderful, with witty spoken dialogue that segues with apparent effortlessness into splendid songs with intricate (and sometimes hilarious) rhymes. There’s probably no one in the Western world who hasn’t encountered Chevalier’s oh-so-French-and-philosophical rendition of "Thank Heaven For Little Girls," found here on Chapter 2. In what is surely an odd coincidence, there is a frame flash that coincides almost exactly with the word "flash" in the lyric " … her eyes will flash/and send you crashing through the ceiling." Cecil Beaton’s sumptuous production design makes the film a bright treat for the eyes throughout and the cast is delicious. Caron, allowed to display infinitely more personality here than in ‘An American in Paris’ (although it’s odd that she’s playing a younger character here, seven years later), gets to be innocent and wise, vulnerable and resilient altogether. No wonder Gaston is tied up in knots over Gigi. Jourdan keeps Gaston likable and funny even when his actions are thoughtless, Gingold is formidable and Chevalier is, well, Chevalier, French savoir-faire made flesh. The combination is unbeatable.
However, what really stands out about ‘Gigi’ when seeing it anew is the complexity and universality of its themes. True, most relationships aren’t literally about prostitution vs. marriage, but it’s common to see a trade-off where one person must sacrifice dignity to the other’s freedom or vice-versa. Without ever stating (or singing) the dilemma in on-the-nose terms, ‘Gigi’ depicts this constant struggle with a level of insight and subtlety that’s rare in dramas, let alone musical comedies, weaving perfectly serious motifs into a glittery fairy tale that has a helium-light touch.
The DVD sound is fabulous. There are a few flashing frames throughout, including some especially noticeable instances in Chapter 27 as Jourdan sings the title number. However, compensation of a sort is provided by the overall richness of the visuals -- in Chapter 34, the colors fairly seem to glow without being remotely blurry.
Many films from earlier eras are hailed as classics. In the case of ‘Gigi,’ this is simple justice.