The Night They Invented Champagne
Lest this space become a venue overrun by Bond (and kudos, btw, to Singer), let’s turn to something that’s polar opposite of Casino Royale’s brooding machismo. I’m speaking of Vincente Minelli’s musical Gigi (1958), which I turned to for a bit of happiness after being emotionally obliterated (for the second time) by Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero at MoMA.
An endearing confectionary vision of Belle Époque France, Gigi is a Seurat painting come to life: mantelets and tailcoats, carriage rides and strolling through the Bois de Boulogne, all decked out in Technicolor cinemascope. Slight and frothy, though not nearly as fluid as its Lerner & Lowe forebear, My Fair Lady, Gigi is consumed with the atmosphere of watching beautiful people in sumptuous places, the best of these being a turn-of-the-century ice rink decked out with chandeliers and liveried attendants, where gentlemen in top-hats escort ladies in full-length dresses—on skates. Which is fine, especially because here is Leslie Caron looking not nearly as wide-eyed (as in, her ocular receptacles are pushed too far out to the periphery of her face) and freakishly alien as she did seven years earlier in An American in Paris. There are a couple of overtures made towards critiquing the idle rich and proclaiming the pleasures of the simple life, but like Caron’s mildly parodic affectation of a society girl, they’re only half-hearted. Gigi is just a pretty pick-me-up, and as such it's impossible to understand why it took home even one Oscar in 1959, let alone nine.
One exchange, however, did provide the perfect salve for sadness: sugar baron Gaston Lachaille, played by a helmet-haired Louis Jourdan, is one of Paris’ most inveterate bachelors, attendant to all the soigné pleasures of society life. He’s raging and storming after paying a call on Gigi, the unpolished, waif with whom, improbably, he has fallen in love—and who, equally improbably, has rebuffed his advances, which include promises of money, jewels, champagne, and an apartment to call her own. Gaston storms into the beautifully appointed garden of a café where his silver-haired-and-tongued uncle, Honoré (a puckish and debonair Maurice Chevalier, who also manages the amazing feat of making a song called “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” sound not nearly as creepy as you’d expect), is taking breakfast. A distraught Gaston says:
“Uncle, I tell you Europe is breeding a generation of vandals and ingrates! Children are coming into the world with ice-covered souls and hatchets in their hands! And before they have finished they’ll smash everything that’s beautiful and decent.”
To which Honoré responds, smooth and rich as melted butter:
“Have a piece of cheese.”
So yeah, there’s a time to reflect and hold forth on the ills of the universe, and a time to find solace in a little bit of Camembert.