“See that girl? Her ass is a song.”
How horny were we back in the fifties? Horny enough to put on a raincoat, leave our happy suburban homes, drive downtown to a shoebox-sized “art” theater, and pay top dollar to sit in a darkened room with thirty or forty other neurotic losers to stare at a postage stamp-sized screen and sit through abysmally dubbed, third-rate sex comedies and melodramas courtesy booty-maître Roger Vadim, all in the hope of catching sight, for a few brief, wonderful moments, of le poitrine et le buttcrack plus plus belle of the sexiest woman in the world, Brigitte Bardot.
Brigitte Bardot, possessor of a pout to die for and a moue that could melt a battleship, was not a bad actress,1 but she made a lot of bad movies, and three of them are available now on DVD, …And God Created Woman, Plucking the Daisy,2 and The Night Heaven Fell. The first two are entertainingly bad coming out of the gate, but fall apart as they stumble toward le fin. The Night Heaven Fell is pretty much a disaster from start to finish.
Roger Vadim met Bardot in 1952, when he was 24 and she was 17. He wanted to marry her immediately but Mama said no, so he had to wait until she was 18.3 Bardot started working in pictures that year, getting bit parts in obscure films. By 1955 she was starring in Cette sacrée gamine (available in the U.S. on DVD as Naughty Girl), one of the first CinemaScope films made in France and clearly intended for the U.S. market.4 Vadim worked on the script for Cette sacrée gamine and decided that he’d like to direct too, and the result was …And God Created Woman.5
The opening shot of Bardot in …And God Created Woman, which showed her perfectly tanned, buck-naked body silhouetted against a white sheet,6 made her world-famous virtually overnight, even though she couldn’t really act when she made the film. Among other things, she found it difficult to talk and look pretty at the same time,7 so a lot of her dialogue had to be dubbed in. She’s supposed to be brooding and tempestuous, but tends to look passive and uninvolved. But for the first hour, it doesn’t matter. The film is deliciously overripe, with its “swinging” score, glossy Mediterranean settings, and campy dialogue, including “With a mouth like that you can have anything you want” and “See that girl? Her ass is a song.”
Brigitte is a pagan child of the sun growing up on the cote d’azur.8 She’s attracted the eye of elegant man of the world Curd Jürgens,9 sporting an impressive French accent for a German, along with the biggest yacht in the harbor. Brigitte thinks he’s sweet, but she’s not giving it up to him, even for a Simca and a ride on the yacht.
She’s also courted by two brothers, the hard-nosed Antoine Tardieu (Christian Marquand) and the sensitive Michel (Jean-Louis Trintignant10. Brigitte likes Antoine’s style, but when she hears him say “girls like her are good for one night only,” she decides to keep on shopping. Michel’s a nerdy kid who doesn’t do much with his life except hang out in bookstores, but when he pops the question, Brigitte says “yes.”11
At first the two are deliriously happy together (Michel gets his ass kicked defending her honor and Brigitte consoles him), but then Brigitte starts to get sulky. The film skids downhill because Vadim doesn’t want to make Brigitte “bad,” but he does want her to be “untamable” – “the kind of woman who drives men mad!”
Neither the script nor Brigitte seems to be up to the task of conveying this ponderous cliché. Brigitte has a brief affair with her brother-in-law. Ashamed, she flounces into a local boîte and tosses off six brandies. Then she heads downstairs to the dance floor, drawn by the tropic beat of the “Whiskey Café” boys, right off the boat from Martinique.
What follows is supposed to be a sizzling climax but instead proves to be an awkward meltdown. Bardot took dancing lessons as a child, but she should have taken a few more, because her sense of rhythm puts her somewhere between Richard Nixon and G. Gordon Liddy.12 When she tosses her hair in her face in a vain attempt to look like a “wild animal,” it’s hard not to look away. Fortunately, the film comes to an abrupt end a few minutes later.
In contrast to all the heavy breathing in … And God Created Woman and The Night Heaven Fell, Plucking the Daisy is an amiable black-and-white sex farce made for the home market. Brigitte seems much more comfortable in this film,13 which starts off like an episode from a forgotten fifties French sitcom, “Oh, Mon General!” The provincial town of Vichy is set topsy-turvy by the publication of en effeuillant la marguerite (aka “Plucking the Daisy”), a shocking roman à clef about life in a provincial town, a town exactly like Vichy! But who could have written such a book? The author is listed as “A.D.,” French (apparently) for “anonymous.”
General Dumont14 storms into a local bookstore in search of the offending volume, but the book is sold out. “Am I in it?” he demands. “No, mon general,” says the bookseller. “He’s in it,” he says, when the old man storms off.
At lunch the general continues to denounce the book as a bad example of modern, postwar morality. “Who could write such a thing?” he demands. “I did,” says daughter Agnes (Agnes Dumont, A.D., get it?), who is of course Brigitte. “It is shameful to write such slanders,” he says, furiously.15
Papa’s set to send Brigitte up for a stretch in the convent at Montlucon, but instead she hops the next train to Paris, sans ticket, planning to stay with brother Hubert, already established as a successful painter. A compassionate journalist on the train, touched by her plight, covers her fare.
When Brigitte arrives at her brother’s pad, he’s not home. The house, in fact, is a former home of the great novelist Honoré de Balzac, converted into a museum. Frère Hubert has been lying about his success, but dear Brigitte is too naïve to doubt his word. Feeling guilty about owing the kindly journalist for her fare, she hocks a valuable Balzac first edition for 180,000 francs and pays her debt. When Hubert surfaces, Brigitte learns of her error. What to do? What to do but enter a striptease contest and win 200,000 francs?
If Plucking the Daisy were half an hour shorter and had a solid striptease,16 it would be an enjoyable film. Instead, it’s a tedious and meretricious bore, and those are the worst kind.
The Night Heaven Fell is a repeat of … And God Created Woman, set in passionate Spain rather than the passionate Mediterranean. The Night Heaven Fell is bigger, longer, and more boring than … And God Created Woman, but the outdoor photography of the Pyrenees is fantastic. The film works much better as a travelogue than a steamy shocker, and, if cut down to about twenty minutes, would look terrific on the big screen.17
The restoration done on these films, particularly … And God Created Woman and The Night Heaven Fell, is excellent,18 but it’s hard to see why anyone would want to buy or even rent them now, when there’s any amount of titillation just a mouse click away. If it’s nostalgia you’re after, knock yourself out, but you might want to pop a Viagra while you’re at it, just in case.
Brigitte Bardot did appear in at least one good film, Le Mépris (Contempt), directed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1963 and starring Jack Palance as a ruthless American film producer (you know the type), Michel Piccoli as a sensitive French scriptwriter (you know the type), and legendary German director Fritz Lang as himself. Unfortunately, this film is not available on video anywhere in the world.19
The web sites devoted to Brigitte are of course legion. I think you can do your own research on this one.
- Okay, not a terrible actress. [↩]
- This is not the same as Pull My Daisy, a legendary short written by Jack Kerouac and starring half the Beat Generation, for some reason not available on video. [↩]
- Vadim of course was one of the legendary ass-men of all time. His marriage to Bardot lasted until 1958. When they divorced, he married AnnetteStroyberg, directing her in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. When that marriage ended heconsoled himself with Catherine Deneuve and then tied the knot with Jane Fonda in 1965, directing her in the unforgettable Barbarella in 1968. When Jane decided she was born to be more than a sex toy and left, Vadim was so shaken that he married Catherine Schneider, who wasn’t even an actress. When that broke up, he had to settle for Marie-Christine Barrault, who lasted him for the rest of his life. (Naturally, there were endless minor babes along the way.) Although sometimes associated with the nouvelle vague, Vadim did little to advance the art of the cinema. But by demonstrating that French films could command a general audience in the U.S., he did help make it easier for true innovators like Truffaut and Godard to obtain American distribution. [↩]
- It would be very interesting to know the story of the financing of this film, as well as …And God Created Woman and The Night Heaven Fell, which were also done in CinemaScope. Who decided that a relatively untested French actress could carry a film in the U.S.? Who in France could handle CinemaScope equipment? The photography in these films is really quite good, even though nothing else is. Someone had an awful lot of faith in Brigitte’s fanny. But the gal certainly came through. [↩]
- The film was known in France even more throbbingly as Et Dieu … créa la femme. [↩]
- One can only imagine the effect of this shot on sex-starved audiences of the time. If they were smart, they would have left immediately afterwards, because in terms of sheer (or mere) arousal, nothing in the remainder of the film comes close to equaling it. [↩]
- Well, it is hard. [↩]
- We know she’s pagan because she walks around barefoot a lot. [↩]
- Usually billed in the U.S. as “Curt Jürgens.” [↩]
- Trintignant is almost unrecognizably young here in only his second film. He starred with Anouk Amiée in an impossibly lucrative slab of sixties kitsch, Un homme et une femme, and also appeared in such films as the Costa-Gavras thinking man’s thriller Z, Rohmer’s A Night at Maud’s, and Bertolucci’s The Conformist. [↩]
- Who, after all, do you think went to Brigitte Bardot movies? [↩]
- She snaps off a few turns to show us her technique, which is amateurish at best. Furthermore, her turns have nothing to do with the mambo beat we’re hearing. [↩]
- In fact, she looks pretty damn cute. [↩]
- A Vichy General? Can you say “fascism”? Not in 1956. Official French doctrine throughout the fifties maintained that the wartime collaborationist government headquartered in Vichy consisted of four old men, who conveniently dropped dead of heart attacks in May 1945. [↩]
- But not, apparently, to wear skintight blouses that launch your breasts heavenward like a pair of sensuous moonrockets. Jeunes filles will be jeunes filles, after all. [↩]
- Naturally, what we get is 90 percent tease and 10 percent strip. In a long shot, we do see one naked woman swat another naked woman on the butt, which you didn’t see in Hollywood films in the fifties. [↩]
- There is a fair amount of faux lesbo action – a semi-naked Brigitte giggling and/or wrestling with another woman – which apparently was as big a come-on then as it is today. Ultimately, we do see Brigitte’s beautiful breasts completely exposed for two whole seconds. [↩]
- In addition, it’s an immense advantage to see these films with subtitles and the original soundtracks, instead of the atrocious dubbing with which they were first released. The discs contain the original trailers, so you can hear just how bad these films sounded back in the fifties. [↩]
- Wake up, France! [↩]