08 Nov 2011
By Wendy Baverstock
(Gigola, cert 15, is released on DVD November 14th 2011 by Peccadillo Pictures. French (with English subtitles)
Based on the novel of the same name, writer and director Laure Charpentier takes on a swashbuckling coming of age tale set in 1960s Paris. I caught up with Laure, who told me about what inspired her to write and produce the story.
A blend of "real life and personal experiences" and an evocative reconstruction of a long lost lesbian underworld, Gigola is the story of George (Lou Doillon) who embarks on a debauched journey of self discovery following the suicidal death of her lover.
As a female gigalo - a ‘gigola’, she finds herself living the high life on the income and gifts she earns from sex. As she cruises between lovers (old and young), she finds herself increasingly drawn towards Tony (Eduardo Noriega) and then into a deadly Parisian criminal underworld.
Doillon, who is joined in the cast by veteran actresses Marisa Paredes and Marisa Berenson, helps to spin us a yarn to perfection. Director Laure Charpentier, who was in charge of all of the casting, comments "With Lou Doillon, I chose her because I could see something in her that was right for the role, despite her strong femininity."
That butch / femme dynamic is richly explored in this film, as Charpentier holds onto a nostalgic fascination for gay Paris. There are lingering shots of the Pigalle district of Paris by night, as if the camera is taking in the view of a naked lover. When we go inside this world, we discover the (real life) lesbian bar, Chez Moune, a camp ‘Moulin Rouge-esque’ nightclub complete with cabaret singers and drag queens. This shady lesbian underworld, almost certainly over-romanticised by the film, provides a richly appropriate backdrop for the films tale of debauchery and lust.
There is certainly no shortage of sex in this film, but the depiction of it is less erotic and more than a little camp and even a bit silly at times. This comes in contrast to one slightly controversial sex scene which is uncomfortably violent, as Gigola stoops to the depths of pimping one of her lovers. We are left wondering whether this is telling us that violence and sexual promiscuity are facets of the male character (being copied by Gigola) or simply a universal condition of being human. But all this is seen through the female, and very specifically, lesbian eyes. Although this doesn’t excuse the dark and violent side of Gigola, it does make it all the more interesting.
Another part of the fascination of this film for lesbian viewers might be the reclamation of our own history, in the same way as novelist Sarah Waters has done through her novels. Largely ignored by historians, lesbian history is reconstructed here, as we see how gay women in 60s Paris enjoyed some sense of clandestine freedom, around the dark streets of Pigalle and within the murky world of clubs, bars and cabaret halls. As such, I am also reminded of the British film, The Killing of Sister George, released in 1966, especially watching the butches and femmes dancing together. This is a world where you might at first think this is an ordinary dance hall, until you look closely to discover that the couples are female.
Back in those days, the hidden lesbian world had to have heavily coded behaviour and signals. Gigola's own rite of passage starts with her lover cutting her hair short, and what follows is the completion of her transformation into a lesbian, with suit, a hat and cane. Charpentier shrugs as she laments the passing of these codes, no longer needed in a modern world. She comments, “Dress codes and female chivalry don’t exist anymore.. it's a shame!".
The heavy consumption of alcohol by the characters is a recurring theme in the film, so it is interesting that Charpentier is, in fact, the founder of des Associations S.O.S. Alcool femmes and l'Association Laure Charpentier, a charity which helps alcoholic gay women recover. She tells me that "Lesbians drink a lot because they are different...they often find it hard to accept...rejection from families, the judgement of others, and the loneliness that inevitably comes with being marginalised” pushes many women to drink.
She goes on to say, “It's interesting to look at the dating adverts in France, which often specify at the end ‘No alcoholics’.” According to her, “Bars and clubs encouraged women to consume large amounts of champagne and spirits - a sign of desperation for some - but for others it symbolised virility.”
The heavy drinking and smoking in this film adds to it being so fantastically French, I half expected the can-can dancers to drop their skirts to reveal the French tricolore. In so many aesthetically French films, the joy comes from watching actors who have unusual and odd faces, and this was no exception. In contrast to increasingly bland Hollywood stars, with their perfect teeth and wrinkle free skin, these faces were at times oddly beautiful. Indeed, actresses in their 60s and 70s, were portrayed, not as old and foolish, but as glamorous and sexually active.
I ask Charpentier (pictured left) if she was aware of how French it all looks. "Yes, a journalist in South Korea was the first to tell me that. Perhaps it is the ‘Made in France’ and especially the ‘Made in Paris’ touch that many people from other countries like, especially in Russia, which was the first country to buy the film". The film has certainly done well, selling to 42 countries across the world, including the US, Canada, Russia, the UK, Indonesia, Germany, and even Taiwan, where it was a surprise box-office hit.
So what next for the director? Charpentier told me she has a number of other projects in the pipeline. The sequel for Gigola has been already been published in a book and adapted for film. She has also written an original screenplay about “a young androgynous female, uncomfortable in her skin, but very attractive and bright.” Apparently, she got the idea for the story whilst observing “butches” during her her time staying in London. "I can't wait to start work on it... and I really hope that the film can be co-produced in the UK."