‘All the future does is spoil the present’ The scandal and uproar that followed the 1956 release of Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman prompted its star Brigitte Bardot to wish that she’d never been born. In fact, controversy has followed the actress around for much of her life. Even after she officially retired from filmmaking at the grand old age of 39, her comments about immigration and animal rights lobbying have ensured her name has never strayed too far from the front pages. What’s interesting about Bardot is that she doesn’t seem to court controversy; rather her natural inclinations seem to take her towards it.
Take the role of Juliete in And God Created Woman. It wasn’t Bardot’s first role (the actress had in fact previously starred in 17 films) but it was the one that bought her to global attention, mostly thanks to her entirely natural, sexually charged performance that didn’t fit the ideas of femininity that existed in the mid 1950s. It wasn’t an overnight shift. Bardot had already been challenging stereotypes since she appeared on the cover of French Elle in 1950. Aged just 17 she represented, according to French fashion historian Nicole Parrot, ‘…something that had never had its place before in society or in fashion: that of the jeune fille.’
With the role of Juliete, Bardot became a woman, her performance (perhaps unintentionally) capturing the raw and uncompromising sex appeal of male icons such as James Dean and Elvis Presley. Consider that Presley, a ‘definite danger to the security of the United States’, had already ‘rouse[d] the sexual passions of teenaged youth’: here was a new threat, actively encouraging liberation rather than simply suggesting it, and making no apologies for a woman who’s sexually available.
Much of the hysteria around Juliete (and indeed Bardot) came from the promise of what she might do, rather than what she does. An 18-year-old orphan, she’s the scandal of the sleepy French fishing village in which she resides. Everyone knows the stories – and the male interest she garners – but Juliete is unrepentant. She follows her instincts, spurns the advances of a wealthy businessman (Curd Jurgens) whilst lusting after Antoine (Christian Marquand), the local shipyard owner. After she overhears him planning to sleep with her before returning to the local city, she marries his younger brother Michel (Jean-Lois Trintignant). He adores her, but she’s clearly out to spite both Antoine and his mother, whose disapproves of everything Juliete stands for and would rather see her son unhappy than accept a wayward daughter-in-law. After a brief spell of good behaviour, and the creation of a genuine bond between Juliete and Michel, she returns to her ‘wild child’ ways, steals a boat and sleeps with Antoine. If the suggestion of nudity and the wantonness weren’t scandalous enough, the film’s famous final scenes, during which Juliete dances barefoot, were outrageous. Here was a woman expressing and revelling in her sexuality, rather than apologising for it.
And God Created Woman isn’t a great film, now or in the 1950s. At The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote: ‘there is nothing sublime about the script of this completely single-minded little picture… It is clumsily put together and rather bizarrely played.’ ‘There lies Brigitte,” proclaimed Time magazine, “stretched from end to end of the CinemaScope screen, bottoms up and bare as a censor’s eyeball’. But then, as now, sex (or the suggestion of it) sells, and moviegoers attended in droves. The film got off to a relatively slow start in France, but was wildly successful in America, with box office receipts totally more than $4million. Success was probably aided by notoriety – several states initially banned the film (including Philadelphia, where a city district attorney declared it to be of “lascivious, sacrilegious, obscene, indecent, or immoral nature”). Elsewhere some cinema managers were arrested for allowing screenings to go ahead and ‘judges’ in wigs and robes gathered outside cinemas to express outrage.
It was success in the US that forced French critics and intellectuals to reassess the film, both Raymond Cartier (the then editor of Paris-Match) and Simone de Beauvoir penned essays examining the cultural phenomenon that was Bardot: the former concluding she was ‘immoral, from head to toe’, the latter opining that the actress was the most liberated woman of post-war France. Viewed through a contemporary lens, neither Bardot nor Juliete appears particularly liberated. Their stories are so interwoven it’s almost impossible to separate actress and character – essentially, Juliete is Bardot and, for all the films clumsiness, she’s the most authentic aspect of it. Juliete is natural and charming, her actions come from the heart and are the essence of who she is.
As she herself observes, she is incapable of lying – to herself, her husband, anyone. Vadim, who also co-wrote the screenplay, was also married to Bardot, and had been her lover since she was 15. He later wrote: ‘She was my wife, my daughter, and my mistress,’. Clearly his ability to tailor the film (and character) to Bardot’s natural talents were a factor in its success. Bardot herself has never claimed to be a great actress (‘I started out as a lousy actress and I remain one’), but her limited skills played into the character. Censors and moral leaders were scared Juliete because she was liberated, but also because Bardot proved she existed. Consider this extract from Brigitte Bardot and The Lolita Syndrome. De Beauvoir is writing about the actress (BB), but it’s all relevant to the character: ‘She cares not a rap for other people’s opinion. BB does not try to scandalize. She has no demands to make; she is no more conscious of her rights than she is of her duties. She follows her inclinations… Desire and pleasure seem to her more convincing than precepts and conventions…. She does not ask questions, but she brings answers whose frankness may be contagious.’
Both Bardot and Juliete made critics, audiences and characters alike question their perception of what it meant to be a ‘woman’. Like many of the Pre-Code actress and the characters they played, Bardot heralded a cultural revolution, but unlike Shearer, Dietrich, Garbo (and many more), Bardot’s onscreen persona represented exactly who she was – Juliete lived the way she pleased, in a manner that put her pursuit of happiness first. If movies are voyeuristic, Vadim was simply showing the world what he already knew: a creature that came ‘from another dimension. [Once] people spotted her, they couldn’t take their eyes off of her. That’s down to her presence, which comes from outer space somewhere.’ As much as it’s impossible to tell where Juliete ends and Bardot begins, Vadim’s fascination with the physicality of woman is the film’s downfall.
Sex appeal might be timeless, but using Bardot’s as the vehicle that carried And God Created Woman’s momentum meant that the film didn’t have much to say beyond shallow postering about ‘loose’ morals. Juliete’s liberation focuses solely on the sexual (conveyed through the constant reminders of her physical attributes) rather than on the emotional or the intellectual. There are few insights into the motivations of her impulsiveness – indeed that aspect of her personality seems solely to play into male fantasies (i.e., she’ll sleep with someone without considering the consequences) rather than something that’s truly liberated. If God really created woman, Vadim ‘created’ Bardot – or at least the image of her he wanted.
Read all the entries here and lap up the summer vibes.