“This MGM movie is studio-system filmmaking at its most protective, and it’s designed entirely to showcase Leslie Caron …”
Charles Walters’ Lili (1953) is the sweet, very special filling between the two extravagant Vincente Minnelli musicals its star Leslie Caron is best known for, An American in Paris (1951) and Gigi (1958). Filmed in bright, primal Technicolor, Lili is not really a musical per se; the only dancer in it is Caron, and the only song that gets sung is “Hi Lili, Hi Lo,” an extremely catchy melody by Bronislau Kaper, with triste lyrics by Helen Deutsch, who also wrote the screenplay (the verse is excerpted below):
On every tree there sits a bird
Singing a song of love
On every tree there sits a bird
And every one I ever heard
Could break my heart without a word
Singing a song of love
Considering that Walters’ other movies are generally lightweight, pleasant diversions, the strong undertow of melancholy that suffuses every moment of Lili likely comes from Deutsch and the actors. The central situation, which involves Mel Ferrer’s embittered puppeteer Paul expressing his feelings for Caron’s waif Lili through his marionettes, should feel corny and saccharine, but it never does, mainly because Caron and Ferrer approach their roles with such honesty and insight into the misery of unrequited love.
The opening shots establish a never-never land sort of France, filled with accordion music, red wine, candy colors, and enjoyable ennui. Ferrer’s Paul and sexy magician Marc (Jean-Pierre Aumont, with his leonine head of hair) stop to look at a dishy girl sashay down the street; she passes, and in her place stands Caron’s Lili, a “little mouse,” in a dowdy grey suit and prim little grey hat. Walters films Caron’s first close-up in the pane of a window, so that we see only her widely spaced blue eyes. This MGM movie is studio-system filmmaking at its most protective, and it’s designed entirely to showcase Leslie Caron and what she does best at this point in her career. With her pale skin, dark Dutch bob, snub nose, large teeth and round, chipmunk cheeks, she almost seems like an animated character, as if some illustrator of fairy tales has drawn her for us. But Caron controls her performance carefully, making her face a childish blank, yet with a tiny spark at the center of the eyes to let us know that Lili is a person worth watching. As a dancer, Caron cannily chooses an awkward posture for this distressed gamine: her shoulders are up around her ears, and her chin juts forward. Half starved, still grieving the death of her father, Lili speaks in an awkward, distressed rush, and Caron’s frank portrayal of her desperation makes a distinctive contrast to the unreal Technicolor world around her.
Marc casually saves Lili from a lecherous store owner and lets her join his carnival world, first as a clumsy waitress who watches his act with a child’s complete credulity. Wanting to get his attention, she tries to relax and even tells him a (bad) joke, so unsuccessfully that we might begin to wonder just how bright Lili is. But her potential is fully revealed when Lili’s pining for Marc gives way to a sequence where she imagines herself an assured, adult temptress. A short skirt shows off Caron’s beautifully full-thighed dancer’s legs, and she puts on a knowing, sexually eager facial expression to match her precise, carnal body language (clearly, this is a woman more than equipped to keep up with Don Juans like Warren Beatty, Caron’s lover in the sixties). In contest with Marc’s statuesque blond assistant (Zsa Zsa Gabor), Caron competes for her man in the same red, spangled dress Gabor is wearing, and she wins the competition by easily out-dancing Zsa Zsa. (There’s a clear implication here that being able to dance well is analogous to being able to fuck well.) The two sides of Caron’s screen persona (naive/experienced) come together in the last shot of the dance, when Lili has won, and she stands erect in her tight red dress while her face returns to its blank, beseeching expression. This striking visual dissonance lets us know that the whole scene has been only a shy girl’s dream of conquest; it’s one of the most psychologically acute fantasies ever put on film.
Audrey Hepburn fell in love with Mel Ferrer when she saw him in Lili, and later married him. With his full mouth and hurt eyes, Ferrer seems to need looking after, though there’s a hint of Joseph Cotten-like truculence in his somewhat harsh voice, and the moment when he slaps Lili is upsetting. But a second dream sequence, which allows Lili to work out her feelings for her Svengali, assures us of their compatibility as a couple. Ferrer and Caron manage to create an all-encompassing tenderness together: they embrace, slowly taking simple steps, his hands constantly caressing her, until he lets himself go and frenziedly kisses her all over her face and Walters’ camera swoons up into an overhead shot. Caron does a back bend over his knee, and Ferrer sinks his head down to kiss her torso. Thus, romanticism and eroticism happily blend in movement.
As of this writing, the fragile, ineffably romantic Lili has not been released on DVD, which should be rectified soon. This is Caron’s most touching performance, and it shows the intelligence of her technique both as a dancer and as an actress. Here and there, over the years, after her lauded musical period was finished, Caron was able to use the sensitivity she displayed in her MGM prime: she won an Oscar nomination as an unwed mother in The L-Shaped Room (1963), an archetypal British kitchen sink drama. As she got older, Caron took on character parts, such as a vampy Nazimova in Ken Russell’s Valentino (1977); published a collection of short stories, Vengeance; and started a bed and breakfast inn, The Owl’s Nest, in Burgundy. Whenever she appears on screen, time seems to have given her added depth. As the mother of Juliette Binoche in Louis Malle’s Damage (1992), Caron manages to dominate the film and express its main theme with just a handful of scenes; her mature presence as an actress seems to speak the lines of Lili’s tune: “The song of love is a sad song … don’t ask me how I know.”
In 2006, Caron emerged on a Law and Order Special Victim’s Unit episode as a raped woman who takes the stand against her assailant many years after the attack. Saddled with a stock part and indifferent fellow actors, Caron started out quietly, doing subtle, detailed work mainly with her eyes; mature, clouded eyes that have seen more than her Lili ever will. On the witness stand, Caron played for maximum drama, delineating the helplessly messy outburst of a basically repressed woman. Her performance earned her an Emmy, and hopefully this attention will act as a reminder of Caron’s heightened skill as an actress, aside from her fond place in our memories as Lili, Gigi, Fanny, and all her other innocents who grin and bear the blows of their sentimental educations.