Leslie Caron began her acting career quite impressively. After having been discovered by Gene Kelly who was looking for a ballet dancer for the female lead in what would become the Best Picture Winner An American in Paris, she received her first Oscar nomination only two years later at the age of 22 for her performance in the musical comedy Lili.
Just like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, Leslie Caron has to handle extremely light material while also filling it with some darker and more emotional moments. And also like Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron bases most parts of her performance on her own personality, her freshness and vibrant youth, combined with her delicateness and seemingly naivety that soon disappears to show a young woman who is only looking for love and happiness.
Lili is a charming, innocent and harmless story that surprisingly never turns into pure kitsch or laughableness. It tells about Lili, a 16-year old, naïve girl from the country whose father died and who wants to find an old friend of his in a provincial town to help her – only to find out that he died, too. She meets an artist from a touring circus and falls in love with him but he shows no interest in her and after she lost her job as a waitress, Lili decides to kill herself but she is rescued in a rather surprising manner – by four puppets, controlled by Paul, the circus’s puppeteer. Through these puppets he talks to Lili, and she, apparently not realising that they are controlled by a man behind a curtain, begins to talk to them, too. The interaction between Lili and the puppets soon becomes a major attraction in the circus but the relationship between Lili and Paul, who is a bitter and frustrated man, wounded in World War II and not able to perform as a dancer anymore, is marked by rejection and disputes whenever he is not hiding behind that curtain.
As mentioned, the plot of Lili certainly sounds like a light and slight story which it definitely is but there are also some more serious and dark moments that never seem out of place or forced into the story but instead create an effective and engaging movie that is certainly not to be taken too seriously but also shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly. Especially Mel Ferrer’s performance as Paul provides the movie’s most effective and interesting moments while Leslie Caron finds herself in a role that asks her to combine naivety, sweetness and a growing maturity in a cynical and often dark surrounding.
Her biggest challenge that would also provide Leslie Caron with her biggest success in this part is the naivety of the character. If a young girl earnestly talking to four dolls about her life, her love and her inner thoughts didn’t stretch credibility in 1953, it certainly does today. But there is something so innocent and so sweet about Leslie Caron’s performance that feels to completely realistic and believable that even the viewer seems to forget reality at this moment. These scenes are the heart and soul of the picture, they define the relationship between Paul and Lili, they tell each other the things they couldn’t say face to face and, after all, the puppets prevent Lili from killing herself – if all these scenes would have been appeared fake, laughable and silly, the whole movie would have collapsed under its own premises but Leslie Caron found the exact right tone of seriousness mixed with light comedy to make it captivating but not overly dramatic, amusing but not stupid. The set-up may be too contrived for its own good but Leslie Caron knows how to sell it.
But thankfully, Leslie Caron is also able to make her more serious scenes believable without denying the core of the character. Especially at the beginning of the story, Lili who seems so impossibly unaware and helpless could have appeared exaggerated but again, Leslie Caron plays the scenes with the right amount of seriousness and lightness to find an appealing balance. Her fear of a local merchant who is too obviously trying to take advantage of her and her flight out of his shop create an absorbing introduction of Lili’s characteristics and Leslie Caron isn’t afraid to show her as a character who is active in her passiveness – she actively tries to find a life where somebody may take care of her and help her. She shows her neediness when she follows a group of men to the circus in hope that they may help her but again, it all works very well in the context of the story’s overall mood – light and charming, a bit serious, but never really dramatic.
Besides succeeding in showing Lili’s naivety, Leslie Caron’s performance also works very well in showing how this naivety slowly begins to change and makes room for more realistic views – Lili, after all only 16 years old, begins to grow and develops a sense of self-awareness, of reflection and an ability to think in larger terms outside of her own views. Leslie Caron interestingly doesn’t overdo this but keeps the character of Lili intact – she shows that this growth in character doesn’t concern Lili as a whole but rather her life at the circus, she begins to realize what she should do and how to act in relation to Paul but this doesn’t mean that Lili stopped being a naïve 16-year old girl. Leslie Caron doesn’t forget that Lili shows only a part of Lili and not her whole life and so she focused on the development in context of the story and not of Lili’s complete character.
Leslie Caron’s chemistry with Mel Ferrer is the most interesting point of the story as they both seem to work best together when they don’t share the screen and instead communicate over the four little puppets but there is also a captivating intensity in their ‘normal’ moments. His frustration and bitterness, which he uses to hide his true feelings of helplessness and fear, work very well with Leslie Caron, whose Lili possesses exact the same feelings of helplessness and fear, only she is more open and honest about them until she finally is able to change and stand up to Paul. Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer can’t express the romantic aspects of their relationship openly and instead only have the puppet scenes to create them, when they are separated by a black curtain. And both are up to the difficulty of these scenes surprisingly well. Later, Leslie Caron uses her emotional scenes effectively to build a stark contrast to the lost girl she portrayed at the beginning.
Of course, since Lili is a musical comedy starring Leslie Caron who impressed with her dancing talents in An American in Paris, the movie also includes some dream sequences that allow her to impress again. Unfortunately, these scenes are the only ones in the movie that feel out-of-place and don’t work in the context of the story. On top of that, Leslie Caron lacks the fascination in these scenes to make them truly work. Her dancing is nice to look at but the execution of the scenes is done too poorly.
In the end, Lili is more than a children’s story but at the same time wants to be too much at the same time and even the more serious moments of the story can’t hide the banality and sentimentality of the characters, especially the title character. Unlike Audrey Hepburn, who could so easily dominate the screen and turn her material into gold, Leslie Caron never manages to hide the simplicity of her part and the banality of the story behind her performance – instead, she even rather emphasises it. She also doesn’t achieve the same level as Audrey Hepburn when it comes to being flawless in a flawed part. She doesn’t provoke the feeling of being irreplaceable or even of being particularly memorable. Leslie Caron effectively portrays the sweetness and naivety of the character and is that way much more believable than expected but if the highlight of a performance are the scenes when the character is talking to four puppets, then it becomes clear that this is a role that, even with a serious and dedicated performance, doesn’t offer a real challenge and makes it hard to be taken fully seriously. In the end, the combination of sweetness, seriousness, dedication in Leslie Caron’s performance and the shallowness of the part receive