This is what happens when inspiration knocks. I originally had zero plans to review Gigi. I’d seen it years ago and didn’t care for it, but figured I’d give it the benefit of the doubt; my youth colored my perspective. Unfortunately, time and an increased awareness of classic films and women have only made the movie’s flaws stand out even further. My apologies to those who enjoy this movie…you won’t be pleased by my thoughts.
Gigi (Leslie Caron) is a young Parisian girl being groomed by her aunts to be a man’s mistress. Her best friend is the town playboy, Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) who’s bored by everything Paris has to offer. When Gaston realizes Gigi is no longer a little girl, he starts to wonder if she’s wife material.
Gigi would have trouble being made today. We probably got the best interpretation with Moulin Rouge!, and even that movie didn’t exactly end with “happily ever after.” Gigi touts itself as a Cinderella story, but if Cinderella in the 1950 Disney version possesses more agency than a woman in 1958, you have a problem. Many of the problems I have with this film were mimicked in my review of Leslie Caron’s debut, 1951’s An American in Paris; primarily, Caron’s character is a mere object for male fantasy. The opening song, the iconic “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” (hilariously shown as the pervert’s lament in My Father, The Hero), situates the film as a tale about men and the beauty that surrounds them, best exemplified in women. It seems as if the movie wants to elevate women to the status of Paris itself, but really they’re nothing more than the Eiffel Tower, a beautiful object whose picture you want to take.
The title might be Gigi, but we know little about her other than what men think or want from her. Leslie Caron starts the film dressed up like Madeline. She has an absentee mother obsessed with making it as a star of the stage, so the girl is raised by her Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans) and grandmother (Hermione Gingold) to be a man’s mistress, not wife, but mistress. In a two-hour film we spend about 40-minutes with Gigi herself, mainly going to lessons and montages about what to do to entice a man (sniff cigars, identify fake jewelry). We’re never told if this is what she wants, or anything considered a personal desire. The romance between her and Gaston develops in a moment of explanation, and almost immediately Gigi declares she’d rather be miserable with him than without him. There’s no lead-up to this revelation, and it comes without any fanfare or epiphany. Instead, Gaston comes to the conclusion he loves Gigi, for equally unexplained reasons. This is a Cinderella story without even a glass slipper to bind the two lovers.
But, of course, the issue isn’t with Gigi. She can’t help it if she’s written to be the pawn of the story. The real problem lies with Gaston and his uncle, Honore (Maurice Chevalier). Both characters are insufferably condescending and misogynist, but it’s masked through Chevalier’s kindly old man routine; he just wants to “thank heaven for little girls,” amiright?! Gaston is worse; he’s so content to say everything is “a bore,” yet acts shocked when people treat his boredom with contempt. He takes out his lady love, Liane (a perpetually grinning Eva Gabor), and is shocked that she’s “not thinking about me.” Considering the man’s sitting like a slapped ass and hates everything, why would she want to think about you? Later on, when she finds another man who apparently appreciates her, Gaston acts indignant while Honore eggs him on about “male patriotism” and how Liane needs her comeuppance. The intent is for the audience to hate Liane and justify Gaston’s hatred of Paris, but really his hatred appears to have been there long before Liane; if it wasn’t the movie doesn’t do anything to tell us otherwise.
It’s unfair to apply modern feminist perspectives to this movie as the 1950s concept of domesticity and passivity are here. Gigi is being groomed for a life of domesticity, although being a mistress would prevent her from legitimacy making Gaston’s marrying her at the end a saving of sorts. However, the characters are never given a chance to express that. Gaston’s love for Gigi is never set up so it’s little more than a saving for saving’s sake. It’s also incredibly hard to shake off the mixed message of separating a woman from a little girl. Gaston says he loved Gigi as a child-like tomboy, and even criticizes her for dressing appropriately, but there’s little logic behind his sudden acceptance of it. The script is just too content to say “They’re French. Go with it.”
Too often the 1950s musicals substituted opulence for substance; grand locations, grand sets, grand costumes, wafer-thin story. The movie is gorgeous to look at, almost painterly in certain scenes. As a musical, it’s just okay. The opening song is creepy, but it’s the one this movie is best known for and the one that actually sounds like a song. The rest of the soundtrack sounds like talk-singing with the emphasis on the former.
The actors are okay, but too often they’re as over-the-top as the sets. Jourdan and Chevalier play their parts – dour and enthusiastic – well. The outlier is poor Caron who’s stuck playing a role that Audrey Hepburn could play in her sleep. Honestly, this is Sabrina without the love triangle. Caron sounds and almost dresses like Hepburn, but she tacks on grandiose facial expressions and throws her arms around to convey emotion. She’s a whirligig in plaid.
As Gaston Lachaille would say, “It’s a bore!” That’s what I feel about Gigi. The movie’s storyline is woefully out of touch, the characters are either condescending or insipid, and the songs mimic the character’s personalities. I loved the costumes and set design, but the rest of the movie barely never once entranced me.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
This is an adaptation of a novella by Colette, who wrote about the mores and social customs of her era. It’s a sophisticated and charming story. A lot of it seems to have gone over your head. Sorry you couldn’t enjoy it.
Seems more likely that it went over YOUR head.
Agree to disagree. What’s interesting is this seems to be a very love/hate movie with absolutely no gray areas. Several readers on Facebook/Twitter have agreed with me so maybe it’s just one of those films that gets a certain devout audience and a certain virulent group of detractors. Different strokes I guess. Thanks for reading!
I knew of its origins as a Colette story although Cheri is the only work I’ve read. But even someone like Edith Wharton, whose novels depicted outdated customs, can still feel fresh and progressive in the hands of the right director (Scorsese’s take on Age of Innocence for example). Giving this a second try, with more advanced knowledge of film and literature, I figured I could enjoy it more but sadly that’s not to be. Thanks for reading!
I’m with David. I adore this film. All the stars turn in excellent performances. It is a story about the training of a whore. It pretends to be nothing else. I find it highly satisfying when, in the end, both Gaston and Gigi realize that not only are they able to rise above the destinies that were thrust upon them by society and their own family dynasties, they desire it. I do agree with you, though, about Maurice Chevalier’s coming off as a pedophile in a straw hat. No matter how much I try to enjoy it, his opening song is icky on so many levels. I laughed out loud at when you stated, “Gigi would have trouble being made today.” Ever see “Pretty Woman”? And every other film that’s released with an aging male star paired with an actress young enough to be his daughter — or worse — his granddaughter?? We’re all supposed to accept this as normal. At least “Gigi” does not dissimulate what it is, male chauvinism and all.
Oh, you’re preaching to the choir. I have seen the continued reliance on age gaps between actors and actresses (Colin Firth and Emma Stone for example). I understand why it continues to be used – daddy issues and power differential – but that doesn’t mean it always works. I know several people who love the work Audrey Hepburn did with actors old enough to be her grandfather (Sabrina is one of my favorite movies with Bogie looking significantly older), and it all boils down to my enjoyment of the story, which I just didn’t enjoy here. Thanks for reading though!
Thank god you said it – I couldn’t stand Gigi. Yet another movie made so old men can feel better preying on girls.