Don't Call Him Lester
Simply put, Vincente Minnelli had style.
Before he directed some of Hollywood's most groundbreaking musicals, he worked as a costume and set designer for the theater. Before he gussied up actors and backdrops, he worked as a window dresser for Chicago department store Marshall Field's. Before he professionally posed mannequins, he was a child actor, touring with his family, until one day he said, "Nope, this acting stuff isn't for me. I want to stay behind the scenes. Also, I want to change my name from dumb old 'Lester' to the far more cultured 'Vincente,'" which is exactly what he did (source).
See? Style. Lester Minnelli operates a forklift, teaches 8th grade history, or manages a bank. Vincente Minnelli? He wins Oscars, sounds like he's from Europe, tells Gene Kelly what to do, and marries and divorces Judy Garland. Yep—Liza Minnelli's his kid. You knew the name sounded familiar.
A Touch of Class
As a director, sophistication was Minnelli's calling card. He directed innovative musicals before An American in Paris, like 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis, and he would go on to direct innovative musicals after An American in Paris. Gigi, in 1958, re-teamed him with Leslie Caron and brought him his one and only Oscar (source). Still, An American in Paris—for which he also earned an Academy Award nomination—is arguably Minnelli at his most imaginative, colorful, and strange.
Claims film critic Emanuel Levy: "…No Hollywood director was as knowledgeable of French art as Minnelli. His work often sought to evoke the light and color of his admired French painters" (source).
In the case of the legendary ballet that closes the film, Minnelli straight-up reproduces the work of those beloved French painters. The effect is a surreal homage that spans, artists, movements, and decades. Minnelli manipulates time and space to create a dreamy playground where Jerry can run wild (okay, dance wild) and work through his frustration and grief.
The surreal, seemingly bananas ballet sequence is the centerpiece of An American in Paris. It's the movie's standout moment, and it oozes Minnelli. At times, it's vivacious and flamboyant. At times, it's elegant and refined. And from start to finish, it's undeniably stylish.