Before Pamela Anderson, there was Brigitte Bardot, whose momentous career has gone largely unscrutinized in the 27 years since her retirement. The release this week of four Bardot movies and a documentary, Brigitte Bardot . . . Take One, on VHS and DVD, is unlikely to restore Bébé to cult status, yet they offer a disorienting view into a world simultaneously liberated and repressive. Just as uninhibited sexual pleasure was a lively currency in pre-Code films, Bardot’s celebrate her own unfettered concupiscence—and are steeped in what we now think of as misogyny.
The recent death of Roger Vadim, Bardot’s first husband and Svengali, makes Anchor Bay Entertainment’s box set timely—he wrote the engagingly silly nightclub comedy Naughty Girl (1955), directed by the journeyman Michel Boisrond, and was responsible for the “artistic direction” of the slapstick romance Please Not Now (1961), after she had its original director, Jean Aurel, fired.
Boisrond helmed her in the convoluted thriller Come Dance With Me (1959), and Aurel got his revenge plying Bardot as a willing secretary to a blocked lothario writer in the appalling Les Femmes (1969). These titles are not, as Anchor Bay claims, “Bardot’s four most sought-after movies,” but presumably the rights to Vadim’s epochal Et Dieu Créa la Femme (1956), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Vérité (1960)—in which she did her best acting—Louis Malle’s Vie Privée (1961), and Godard’s Contempt (1963) were unavailable.
Bardot was still an appealing gamine, elfin and brunette, in Naughty Girl, but within a year Vadim turned her into a postcoitally tousled blonde and France’s biggest sex symbol with Et Dieu, and the films she made in its wake exploited her willingness to shed. She’s nothing less than resplendent unclad and pouting, but it’s unsettling these days to see her naked beside so many fully dressed men. There’s something especially nasty about the way Vadim composed two shots in Please Not Now, in which she plays a sweet-natured model, to make her seem like a supplicant about to perform fellatio (they were already divorced by then).
That Bardot colluded in the endless jokes films made about her tits and agreed to appear in something as tawdry as Les Femmes when she was 35 reflects the times as much as it does her self-admitted lack of discernment. It’s a relief to learn from the documentary that Bardot exerted much more control over the men in her life than they did over her—she slapped the manipulative Clouzot in the face and trod on his feet when he abused her on the set. Perhaps the real sadness of Bardot’s career is that there was a graceful natural actress hidden away under the increasingly thick pancake and mascara and the candy-floss mane—and that she retired too early. The funny, self-deprecating interview she gave the documentary suggests she could yet be a wise old woman of the French screen—Virginie Ledoyen’s grandma, perhaps?