I can’t quite make up my mind about Lili. Is it sweet or a trifle disturbing? Is it a musical or a movie with musical numbers? Is it too short or just not fleshed out by the actors? I’m not even quite sure if I liked it or not. I think I did.
The story is based on a short story by Paul Gallico, which was later turned into a novella while the film was still playing in the theaters. The story is darker, from what I understand, which might account for the feeling that there is something dark beneath the surface of the musical.
Lili (Leslie Caron) is a naive sixteen year old orphan who falls in with a carnival and falls in love with the magician, Marco the Magnificent (Jean-Pierre Aumont), a shameless ladies man who is secretly married to his assistant, Rosalie (Zsa Zsa Gabor), but doesn’t want anyone to know. He gets Lili a job as a waitress at the carnival, but she’s too clumsy (it was funny to see Caron playing a clumsy child, since she is neither clumsy nor a child – she was 21).
But when Lili thinks she must part from Marco and tries to commit suicide, she is prevented by puppeteer Paul Barthelet (Mel Ferrer), who uses his puppets to coax her away from the tall ladder she was going to jump off. There is an instant and charming rapport between her and the puppets and Paul asks her to join his show and their show soon attracts the attention of several important men from Paris who want to take the show out of the carnival.
Paul himself has fallen in love with Lili, but is completely unable to express it. A deeply gloomy and morose man, Paul was formerly a dancer, until his leg was injured during the war (I assume WWII). Now, he is angry at most everything and the only way he can express himself is through his four puppets: Golo the giant, Carrot Top, Marguerite the ballerina and Reynardo the fox.
In fact, in a curious way, the heart of the film is between Lili and the four puppets, who she bonds with almost as if they were real, forgetting that Paul is the one behind them. In fact, it is her relationship with the puppets that forms the basis of her romance with Paul, when she finally realizes that everything she loves about the puppets is really coming from Paul.
I have to say, however, that I’m not at all sure how I feel about Mel Ferrer’s performance. He is almost too creepy, a possessive lover just waiting to happen. A bit stiff, too. Leslie Caron, however, seems perfect. She make her naive character relatable and believable as she grows wiser to the world. She also gets a few dances in the film, with the big one being the dream-dance where she comes to realize that behind each puppet she loves is the man she loves.
Jean-Pierre Aumont is also quite convincing as the magician who is all flash, but no substance. One also can’t help but feel for his long-suffering wife, determined to stay with him even though she knows what kind of man he is. It’s hard not to predict a grim future for her.
But on the whole, there is something very charming about the idea behind Lili, though something just doesn’t quite work and I can’t put my finger on what it is The film is only 80 minutes. Did it need to be longer? Know the characters better? Was it Mel Ferrer I found unconvincing? But still, something fairy-tale-ish and charming remains behind. It’s a unique film. It is set in a carnival, which forms the backdrop of the story, but the real world is between Lili and the puppets. A world of affection, gentleness, human frailty and forgiveness, wisdom, vulnerability and perfect trust.
“Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” – music written by Bronsilaw Kaper and lyrics by Helen Deutsch.