Gigi (1958) and My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Dir. Vincente Minnelli. Starring Louis Jourdan, Leslie Caron, Hermione Gingold

Dir. Gus Van Sant. Starring River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, William Richert

“Thank heaven for little girls,” Honoré (Maurice Chevalier) sings, and it’s as apt an opening for the film as there could be; there can be no question of why they are thanking heaven. The men of Paris in Gigi are lovers above all else—there’s a good joke in here somewhere about the French fighting, I’m sure, if only I could find it—and bigger girls are the ultimate prizes. The sexual politics of Gigi are foreign and arcane. Aging adults like Honoré, his would-have-been lover Madame Alvarez (Gingold), and her sister Alicia (Isabel Jeans) defend the system by which a wealthy man indulges himself with the company of a woman, who will someday be disposed of and left with some ritzy memories and ritzier jewelry. Gigi (Caron) is a little confused by the people within the system rather than the system itself; the refrain to one of her songs, after all, is “I don’t understand the Parisians.” Precisely in the middle of this system, the linchpin for status and sex and attraction and fashion, is Gaston Lachaille (Jourdan), Honoré’s nephew and thus sort of a linchpin for the pseudo-incestuous closeness of the plot. Personally bored by the expectations of fin-de-siécle France, dismissive of the joys of the flesh but never really without them either, disputatious with his traditional uncle and yet never mentioning marriage, Gaston is the knot inside the enormous ball of twine. As Gaston goes, for better or worse, so goes the movie. Seated in Madame Alvarez’s blindingly red salon, drinking her tea, losing to Gigi at cards (though, to be fair, she’s cheating), the movie is charming and fun. But when he leaves, the movie is roughly as dull as he says his gadabout Parisian life is; how much can we really be expected to care about his campaign to one-up an ex-lover, one he seems diffident about in the first place?

My Own Private Idaho has its share of enormously red rooms as well, although it leans more toward rose or pink rather than red velvet carmine, and what goes on in them is easier to understand. The rules are far, far simpler in the Pacific Northwest of the late ’80s than they are in the Paris nine decades before: one pays to play. Gigi’s reservations about becoming a courtesan in the model of her aunts are mental ones; Mike (Phoenix) is underwhelmed by what he does for money, although the unsavory qualities of it occasionally come to light. Mike is a narcoleptic, and according to Scott (Reeves), his sudden lapses into a twitching sleep are brought on by the chemical imbalances of enormous stress. There are good reasons for him to feel stressed, as we find out. He has no family life to speak of, no home better than his father’s trailer in Who Even Cares, Idaho, and no parent better than his father (James Russo), who tries to tell Mike that he’s not his real father. Other hustlers will, in shy but frank language, tell some person off-camera—one of us, I suppose—about their frightening, ugly experiences in the red setting of a Chinese restaurant in Portland, ones that they had the misfortune of staying awake through. Of their number, only Scott seems to have any real thought for tomorrow, and that’s because he’s the only one of the bunch who has much of a tomorrow to go to. He is the son of the mayor of Portland (Tom Troupe), due to come into a fabulous inheritance, relative or otherwise, when he turns 21. (The other mayor of Portland, by a tremendous serendipity, is investigating the death of Laura Palmer some hours up the Pacific Coast at roughly the same time) When the time comes, he will disappoint just about everybody on the streets of Portland as he ascends to its fine restaurants wearing fine clothes and conversing with fine people.

It’s hard to believe that Gus Van Sant made Good Will Hunting less than a decade after making My Own Private Idaho. The former is milquetoast, bland, and Hollywood. The latter is unbelievably brash, intense and ambitious because it seems disinterested in the niceties of your average plot. In less than two hours, Van Sant crams in Mike’s 8mm longing for the mother who left, an Easy Rider homage complete with motorcycles and stunning campfire scene, a pair of thorough character studies and, yes, his own transparent spin on Shakespeare’s Henry V trilogy. There’s something a little abrupt about the way Van Sant simply drops us into Idaho with a luminous card reading “Idaho” in white, but there it is. When a shirtless Scott speaks to us from the cover of a dirty magazine, he is colloquial, but when he is in the presence of Bob (Richert), Falstaff in a trench coat, he speaks in the pseudo-lyricism of pseudo-blank verse. It’s striking to see how much Van Sant actively takes from Henry IV, Part I in particular, taking time to replicate one of the pranks that Hal and Poins pull on Falstaff and his pals; Scott and Mike set upon Bob and some of his cronies, each wearing a hooded pink robe, and scare them into flight with fireworks.

What My Own Private Idaho is missing, of course, is a Hotspur; there is no one who challenges Scott from above, no foil who is “doing the right thing” in comparison with the dallying prince. If there is a Hotspur in Private Idaho, then it must be Mike, who is far more emotionally mature than Scott. Maybe it’s Scott or maybe it’s Keanu Reeves, but I’m inclined to give Reeves a little credit here: Scott can be wooden. At the campfire, Mike confesses to Scott that he loves him; Scott is skeptical that two men could love each other in that way, but is mostly nonplussed in the face of Mike’s tremendous emotional vulnerability, his willingness to remove his shell entirely. One reflects that Hal has to stiffen up in the presence of Falstaff and his tavern buddies, knowing that someday he will be king. There is no reassurance for the audience that Scott will live up to the world’s expectation of him—Van Sant wisely omits the little hint that Hal gives the audience early in Part I—and yet the movie pushes Scott in that direction anyway. In Italy, of all places, he finds the right girl. The right girl becomes his wife, and his wife becomes a key indicator of the privileged and unquestioningly heterosexual life that Scott chooses. It is a far cry from smacking Bob with a baseball bat in the park, or even leaving his jacket with Mike during the throes of one of his narcoleptic episodes.

Gigi does not owe quite as much to other pictures or plays as My Own Private Idaho does. In practice, it feels like a dry run for a much more interesting Lerner and Loewe musical which would also win Best Picture: My Fair Lady. Everyone does an awful lot of talk-singing, although nobody is as good at it as Rex Harrison; Louis Jourdan was not made for musicals. Even Chevalier is kind of talk-singing, but he at least has the excuse of being too old to sing-sing anymore. There is some wit, and there are many costumes, and there is a young woman at the center of the action who is kind of charming despite herself being pursued halfheartedly by a man who would be more charming if he would just lighten up a little. One feels that Minnelli is a little wasted on this movie; the extravagance of The Band Wagon or the straightforwardness of Meet Me in St. Louis are missing from Gigi, which wants very much to live up to the French sophistication its characters are all trying to tap into. Only a couple of scenes really strike home. In one, Honoré and Madame Alvarez recollect very different versions of their courtship which, if Honoré had not been so intent on his future as a raconteur, might have turned into something rather beautiful. The song isn’t much, but the paintings in the background marking different points in the sunset are kind of better than the genuine article. And for as much as I’ve dismissed Jourdan’s performance, he does play his part well when he sings the title song, wandering around the gardens at Paris, wondering if he really is in love with this girl and, if so, how it could have happened without his realizing it in the first place. Most of the rest of the film feels nearly as aimless as Gaston’s walk.

What Gigi needs most of all is someone who is as captivating as River Phoenix. He makes us believe in Mike as a person with desperately powerful wants and an almost comically limited puissance. Much of the back half of the movie is spent following Mike as he follows the trail of his mother, going back to Idaho, returning to the same road that he always seems to return to, for Herodotus didn’t have anything to say about how many times you could step into the same road. In Idaho he learns that his mother went to Italy to look for her own family, ostensibly. In Italy, he and Scott learn that his mother returned to the United States; all the trip does, in the end, is lose him his best friend and the love of his young life. In Phoenix’s hands this is a minor tragedy. There’s the best of James Dean in River Phoenix, not merely because of the red jacket or the premature death, but in the goodness that he can portray even when the character is a little unsavory, rougher around the edges than one wants to bring home but arresting to watch from the safe zone in front of the screen. One can’t help but admire that openness Phoenix brings to a part that could have been a cipher rather than an open, bleeding, and very red wound.

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