This weekend, let’s take a trip to the dazzling, dizzying world of the Paris demimonde during the Belle Epoque. We’ll do it through the 1958 Lerner and Loewe musical Gigi, based on the novella of the same title by Colette and starring Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, and Maurice Chevalier and directed by Vincente Minnelli.
HonorÃ© Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier) opens the film with this quote: “Like everywhere else, most people in Paris get married, but not all. There are some who will not marry, and some who do not marry. But in Paris, those who will not marry are usually men, and those who do not marry are usually women.” HonorÃ©’s nephew, Gaston is young, rich, idle, and terribly bored. He’s just such a man that rather than marrying, he prefers to spend his time with the lovely courtesans of the Parisian demimonde. When not with them, he spends time with former courtesan Madame Alvarez and her brilliant, high-spirited granddaughter Gigi. Madame Alvarez has great plans to transform Gigi into one of the most refined, most sought-after courtesans in Paris, even though Gigi has trouble with the lessons she takes from her Great-aunt Alicia, another former courtesan. But Gigi has her own dreams for herself: she is in love with Gaston, whom she has known all her life and who is like a brother to her. When Gaston breaks off things with his latest mistress, Gigi persuades him to take her and her grandmother on vacation to the seashore with him, and his feelings begin to grow for Gigi, too. Both must reconcile the differences between the desires of their heads and their hearts.
On the surface, Gigi is a very sweet, romantic story about love trumping over all for two young people who were aleways meant for each other. But there is a darker undercurrent to the film as well, and perhaps the biggest red flag is one of the film’s most famous songs, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” The plot in Gigi is a perfect example of the wife husbandry trope. Madame Alvarez and Great-aunt Alicia groom Gigi into not just anyone’s ideal mistress, but Gaston’s ideal mistress. Gigi and Gaston, who have known each other for all of their lives, get along quite well, and Gaston confides in Madame Alvarez about his love life when Gigi isn’t around. Madame Alvarez uses the knowledge gleaned from conversations with Gaston and Gigi’s puppy love for him to make Gigi as pleasing as possible for him and thereby transform Gigi into one of the most refined, most sought-after courtesans in Paris. This isn’t something that Gigi wants at all, but she also wants Gaston, and she is ready to live life as a demimondaine to be at his side.
Gigi also provides some insight into the world of the Belle Epoque Parisian demimondaine. It was a common practice for well-known courtesans of the past such as Marie Duplessis to ride through the Bois de Boulogne and attract the attention of all those who saw her, or Liane de Pougy, who often attended cafÃ©-concerts and cabarets throughout Paris. While a man could freely move from the demimonde to the haut-monde, the courtesan had to remain in the demimonde, away from the respectable wives and daughters, no matter how intelligent and accomplished she might be.
If anything, Gigi is a gateway to further reading and research on the world of the Paris demimonde and of the Belle Epoque altogether. It was a heady, delightful time in a heady, delightful world, before the onset of World War I, and is a point in history that is really like no other.