Monday, September 8, 2014

Dance and Art in An American in Paris

Some love it. Some hate it. An American in Paris is ranked 68th on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list (1998) and 9th on AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals (2006), yet it also made Premiere magazine's 20 Most Overrated Movies list.

I understand people questioning the film's worthiness to belong to such illustrious lists as those put forth by AFI. The first times I watched the movie, I wanted to skip the big production at the end of the film and get to the final kiss. But then, I was in my early teens and impatient. I loved every musical I had ever seen, so it really bugged me that I didn't get the big deal about this one. So what did I do? What any classic-loving-girl would do: I watched it again. And again. And again. Maybe not repeatedly all in one sitting. Not even all in one month or year. But I persistently returned to the film at different points of my life. And you know what? Age helped me appreciate the musical in ways that I had missed during my first viewings. 

Over the years I have developed my own theory as to the significance of the film's last elaborate dance sequence--a theory that I tried unsuccessfully to back up with research, so maybe it's all in my head. But what I did discover during the research phase proved the artistic importance of the number nonetheless. Vincent Minnelli (the director) and Gene Kelly (the star and choreographer) intended the final ballet sequence to represent Paris as seen through a painter's eyes. Great care was taken in creating backdrops and costumes that reflected the various Parisian painting styles: 

first Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), 

then Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), 

followed by Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955), 

Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), 

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), 

and finally Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).

In Cinema and Painting: How Art is Used in Film, Angela Dalle Vacche gives a convincing argument that the dance is symbolic of Jerry's inner turmoil over his identity as a painter. He is at a crossroads--does he accept the aid of a lady benefactress or continue to be a starving artist? The ballet, a dream-like sequence, gives us and him the answer. Lise represents Parisian art; she is Rousseau's gypsy girl in one part of the ballet and Toulouse-Lautrec's Jane Avril in another. By falling in love with her, Jerry chooses art over "the entrepreneurial aggressiveness of [the American] Milo" (27), which is represented by the women in red and white who chase him. (Even Milo's name suggests the statue, Venus de Milo, cold and without feeling.) Vacche reasons that this "suggests that an American male can be a painter in Paris as long as he marries a French girl" (27) although she admits the movie "does not completely resolve the rivalry between art and love, between unbound male creativity and the routine to which marriage leads" (17). Even in marrying a French girl, he is married.

According to Vacche, "Minnelli and his collaborators did not conceive the ballet as a story with a clear, logical development but as a series of psychic associations" (22). However, long before the convenience of the internet, I came to a different conclusion about the final dance production. Kelly typically tells a story with his dance routines, so it is certainly possible that his choreography had more of a plot than Vacche attributes to it. I saw the ballet as a retelling of the main characters' (Lise and Jerry) romance via dance. It begins with Jerry running through Paris finding and "dancing" with scarlet women (symbolically dressed in red) until he finds Lise, the rose among the flowers. She evaporates, leaving his arms full of a flowers. The dance transitions to innocent giddiness when he finds Lise again, Jerry in his straw hat with his fellow GIs and Lise with her schoolgirl friends. This is followed by a sensual dance, symbolizing the passionate side of romance. But I kept getting stuck on that white-clad version of Jerry with his silly hat. Then one year, I thought I finally figured it out...

This may get a little radical for some. Be forewarned. I realize now that Kelly is dressed as Chocolat and Caron as Jane Avril of Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings, but Kelly's choreography (we're talking all of the dancers' movements here) along with his and the women's costumes make it look like he may be representing a part of Lise and Jerry's relationship that could not have been shown under other circumstances. Watch it and see if you get what I mean.

Pay no attention to the title of the YouTube Video.
I am not alluding to Kelly's derriere.

The number says what the plot could not in those days of heavy censorship. As an added bonus, I discovered per IMDb, Leslie Caron mentioned that the censors had a problem with an earlier number in which Caron's character danced--in their eyes--a little too suggestively with a chair. A TCM article by Scott McGee also mentioned Kelly had trouble with censors in regards to her flapper outfit in the same sequence. With the last number, I believe he got the last laugh.

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