Film historian Mark Griffin commented on Vincente Minnelli’s film “Gigi”: “Scenes are so masterfully composed, they are like oil paintings come to life.” A more appropriate analogy would compare “Gigi” to a vase: a lovely object to behold, but one with a hollow core.
The problem with “Gigi” is that the film is all style and almost no substance. Not that there’s anything catastrophic with substance-free movies, of course. But Minnelli – in union with costume designer Cecil Beaton and cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg – seemed more focused on filling the CinemaScope screen with a Metrocolor wash of Impressionist-inspired imagery. The result turned out to be too much of a good thing: overstuffed sets, garishly distracting costumes and travelogue-worthy shots of 19th century Parisian landmarks created a visual overload that constantly crushed the film’s fragile story.
In fairness, the excessive opulence might have been good thing, as it helped camouflage the main defect with “Gigi.” The Colette tale of a teenage girl groomed for the life of a high-price courtesan underwent significant Production Code-mandated scrubbing for Eisenhower-era consumption, but even a bowdlerized version of Colette’s vision retained a certain icky residue of forcing a minor into a life as a wealthy man’s sexual plaything. Confusing matters is Leslie Caron’s physical presence as Gigi – the 27-year-old star was far too old to be convincing as a school girl, despite being encased in an oversized academic uniform, and her abrupt transformation into an uber-mature high society woman stretched credibility to the fraying point.
One could hope that some refuge could be found in the charming Lerner and Loewe score, but Minnelli opted to shoot most of the musical numbers with his stars seated at tables or walking through Parisian gardens and boulevards. The result was a state of visual stagnation put to music. Only twice does the film show signs of tuneful vitality: in the rollicking “The Night They Invented Champagne” number, with Caron, Louis Jordan and Hermione Gingold doing a seemingly impromptu dance in a tight sitting room, and in “I Remember it Well,” with Gingold and Maurice Chevalier brilliantly trying to one-up each other with unapologetic hammy gestures and inflections in a wry duet that casually comments on the ephemeral nature of youth.
Nonetheless, “Gigi” may disappoint – certainly by contemporary standards, its view of women is far from ennobling – but it never bores. Much of the saving grace belongs to Chevalier – his mischievous persona is so pronounced that he often seems like he’s in his own film, and his star power is so pronounced that his absence from long stretches of the story creates a slight drag. A nice bit of fun comes via Eva Gabor, whose Hungarian-accented chirping stands in sharp contrast to the Anglo-French accents of the cast – she manages to take a tiny nothing role of a spurned mistress and steal what little screen time she is afforded. And while Louis Jourdan is certainly handsome as the playboy millionaire who elevates Gigi from would-be mistress to wife, one can’t help but wish that Dirk Bogarde, the original choice for the role, was able to be on screen. While eye-candy Jourdan added to the visual prettiness of Minnelli’s vision for “Gigi,” Bogarde’s stronger dramatic skills would have given the film the shot of mature gravity that it desperately needed.