Our series Beauty is Everything: Vincente Minnelli closes Thursday night at the Heights Theater with a screening of the 1958 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Gigi.
Review by Trylon volunteer Geoffrey Steuven.
Alternately remembered as a late, great MGM musical and one of the worst films to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, Gigi, our further evidence of Vincente Minnelli at play in the land of the auteurs, currently finds itself at both its highest and lowest ebb in the public imagination. The low ebb confounds me, though it probably has something to do with the movie’s general lack of self-awareness, this quality being an essential component for delivering musicals to audiences in the 21st century. Said lack extends with dire misfortune, they say, to the movie’s opening number, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” Except not really. It’s a lively tune, charmingly sung by Maurice Chevalier!
But if you’re looking for a winking approach, you’ll have been better served by every other Minnelli musical at the Heights this month (save Meet Me in St. Louis, maybe, which has Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” to melt any undue resistance). Gigi is certainly the least “cool” of the bunch, but before you flip that and call it “stuffy,” citing the fact that every song in the movie is sung by actors in positions of sitting and standing, please note the sophisticated performances and cinematography that attend all this sitting and standing. Particularly lovely is “I Remember It Well,” during which a golden sunset lights the serene and nostalgic faces of the film’s oldest lovers, Chevalier and Hermione Gingold, who sit and then sit some more while remembering and misremembering the details of their tryst. It’s the way they sit.
The movie’s other pair of lovers is Gigi and Gaston, played with youthful discontent by Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan, but seemingly destined for a similar kind of weary satisfaction. Gigi, as in the Colette novella on which the movie is based, is a courtesan-in-training, and most of the movie’s perceived problems stem from the fact that a work of literature has been scrubbed for the sake of the censors and mass entertainment, even as aspects of the novella’s plot and characterization stick out in the ensuing product, untamable. Gigi and Gaston’s age difference, for example. You might find yourself resistant or even hostile to their love affair but conclude that, as an excuse for Minnelli’s deft touch and visual splendor, it passes code.
Or you might feel something. The high ebb of Gigi’s current reception finds its voice in Julia Holter’s Loud City Song, a wonderful album from last year with many overt references to the movie. These occur in the way Holter inhabits the voice of Gigi and excavates new, almost undeserved layers of feeling in the film’s central romance, or, more generally, in the way the music’s elaborate instrumentation and studio effects express something akin to Minnellian mise en scene. Meanwhile, the lyrical strategies suggest Frank O’Hara and perhaps do the most work to make Gigi cool again, by opening it up to the wider world of 1950s metropolitan expression.
It’s almost a cinematic achievement. Holter represents a hope for the return of the MGM musical, immediately dashed by her rarity. She’s not a movie director, but her project requires a similar kind of passion and command of a broad range of material. The vacancy of a less remarkable era has a certain advantage; the death of the musical and the grand entertainment makes room for an album like Loud City Song.
What could interest Holter in the story of a girl who hates love and a man who hates routine (hence, both longing for the impermanent and undefined), bound to come together by mutually steadying each other for the society they can’t take alone? When she sings about love, she produces a similar sentiment. On “This Is A True Heart,” she is Gigi: “Let’s not insist on “love.” We’re just alive.” In a broader sense, Gigi is a musical with no dancing, this more than made up for by the movie’s bold choreographic gestures—climactically, Gaston’s reversal by the fountain at night, his pointing cane (a moment of clarity, as his loud city song plays). Holter makes music heavy with movement, with many climactic moments but few expected rhythms or openings for dancing.
Back to Gigi: I could go on, but what’s needed for enjoyment, clearly, is not extensive analysis, but rather deactivation of certain areas of the brain (we’ll label these “modern sensibility”) via careful conditioning. Please note the sign as you enter the Heights: “This theater forbids condescending and/or uncomfortable laughter.”
Geoffrey Stueven remembers romantic scenes from his life in Minneapolis, but not very well. He writes about music at The Big Takeover and might have stolen a few words from his Julia Holter review.
Gigi screens Thursday night at 7:30 at the Heights Theater. Purchase tickets here.