The Mystified Male Gaze
Austin Powers may be an International Man of Mystery, but when it comes to secrecy, he's got nothing on Lise Bouvier. When she's not refusing to talk about where she's been, and with whom, then she's flat-out running away. To steal a line from Winston Churchill—a guy who knew a thing or two about movie-musicals (we're just assuming here)—Lise is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
At least that's how the men in An American in Paris view Lise, and for much of the movie, we see her almost exclusively through their eyes. When Henri tells Adam about his girlfriend, his description is cryptic.
HENRI: She's an enchanting girl, Adam. Not really beautiful. And yet, she has great beauty.
Um, we think that's a compliment?
As Henri continues describing Lise to Adam, he raves about her complexity, and we see the many facets of her personality in split-screen. First, she's a prim and proper ballerina. Then she's a sultry seductress. Then she's a bookworm, and so on. Lise wordlessly dances through each of these roles, and we never hear her side of things. We only see the impressions that Henri has projected onto her (and her extensive wardrobe).
Lise's first meeting with Jerry follows the same superficial script. He's infatuated with Lise from the moment he lays eyes on her across the crowded club. For all he knows, Lise could sound like Harvey Fierstein, but Jerry doesn't care. He just likes the package.
You Can't Spell "Simple" Without "Lise"
It's not until Jerry starts hitting on Lise, hard, that we get a taste of Lise's personality. She's young, and she's more than a little bit naïve. When Jerry tells her that she's beautiful, for example, she thinks he's making fun of her. Why? We'll let Lise tell you:
LISE: I haven't been out with many people, and they're always friends.
JERRY: Honey, believe me, I'm no enemy.
Lise isn't complicated; she's simple. We don't mean that as an insult. Rather, we just mean she's immature and inexperienced. After she was orphaned as a girl, Henri took care of her, protecting her from the enemy during the war, and protecting her from guys like Jerry after the war. In short, Lise has led a sheltered life.
Henri raised Lise, and then she fell in love with him, or so she thinks. Her love for Henri comes from a sense of of duty, less from her heart than from her head. We mean, come on: he saved her life. Marrying Henri seems like the right thing to do, or at least what she's supposed to do, even if that sounds like the least romantic reason, ever, to get hitched.
When Lise meets Jerry, he throws a wrench in her plan. He may be shallow and come on stronger than a truckload of garlic, but he's titillating, which puts Lise in nasty predicament. She has to choose between obligation and excitement. Instead of making a choice, Lise straddles the love line and keeps seeing both Henri and Jerry.
When it comes to the love triangle at the center of An American in Paris, we can take two things away from Lise's behavior: first, if Jerry's a cad—and he is—so is Lise. Leading on two guys simply isn't kosher, no matter what her intentions are.
Second, the source of Lise's mystery is her inexperience. She's not beguiling on purpose; she's simply a young woman who doesn't want to hurt anybody and doesn't know what the heck she should do. While she struggles to figure it out, her indecision only makes her more attractive. It's more a curse than a gift.
JERRY: Lise, I don't know whether you're a girl of mystery or just a still water that doesn't run deep, but there's one thing I can tell you. I'd been around sooner, you'd know by now that you're very pretty, and I'm not making fun with you.
Jerry's nuts about Lise, even though he admits to her face that he doesn't know if she's mysterious or a moron. (Um, thanks Jerry?) Lise repeatedly refuses to tell Jerry where she goes and with whom, and still, he wants to be with her. In the words of the renowned American poet Katy Perry, she's hot, then she's cold. She's yes, then she's no. She's in, then she's out. She's up, then she's down. She's wrong, then she's—well, you get it.
Lise's shady behavior reaches its peak when she and Jerry share a cab. He makes a pit-stop at his apartment building to drop off his painting supplies, and she drives off. This is thoroughly uncool, but what does Jerry do? He tells Adam how entranced he is by Lise, who just told the cabbie to floor it:
JERRY: What gets me is, I don't know anything about her. We manage to be together for a few moments, and then off she goes. Sometimes we have a wonderful time together, and other times it's no fun at all. But I got to be with her.
Got to be with her? Say what? If we were Jerry, we'd tell Lise to throw our phone number down a well.
Later, when Jerry confesses his love to Lise, Lise's behavior is similarly exasperating. Jerry walks away, his heart shattered, and Lise calls out to him:
LISE: Jerry, if it means anything to you, I love you.
Lise thinks she's doing Jerry a solid here, but really, she's just taking those broken pieces of his heart and grinding them into the dirt. Lise acts like the situation she's in—being forced to choose between two men—is out of her control, when all she needs to do is make a decision.
This helpless attitude pops up again at the art students' ball, when Lise says goodbye to Jerry on the balcony:
LISE: Oh, Jerry. It's so dreadful standing next to you like this and not having your arms around me.
You know what's really dreadful? Finding out the girl you're in love with—you know, the one whom you've been dating for weeks, who totally made out with you, and who says she loves you, too—is engaged to another dude. Again, if we were Jerry, we'd be tempted to toss Lise off the balcony and call it a night.
But we're not Jerry. As viewers, and especially as modern viewers, we have insight that he doesn't, and we know that Lise is an accidental ingénue. She's not a man-eater; she's just inexperienced and indecisive, and her character's appeal for the opposite sex reflects the time period in which An American in Paris is set. In so many frustrating ways, Lise represents the mid-20th-century's idea of the perfect woman: she's beautiful, she's mysterious, and she doesn't say much.