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Viva Maria

Viva Maria(1965)

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teaser Viva Maria (1965)

Picture this: Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot as pistol-packing showgirls who invent the striptease and get embroiled in a South American revolution. That's the irresistible concept behind Viva Maria!, Louis Malle's lush musical parody of a Hollywood action film which failed to attract an appreciative audience when it was first released in 1965. Maybe the idea of mixing saucy cabaret numbers (performed by Moreau and Bardot as part of their traveling carnival act) with action scenes involving machine-gun massacres and terrorist bombings was just too outre for most moviegoers. After all, Bardot is playing the daughter of an Irish Republican anarchist who seems to delight in setting off explosives as much as she enjoys kicking up her heels on stage. But despite the consistent tone of broad burlesque, Viva Maria! remains one of Louis Malle's least understood films, even though it did win the Grand Prix du Cinema Francais award. It's certainly a departure from the director's previous work, The Fire Within (1963), which dealt with the final hours of a suicidal young man. Instead, Viva Maria! is a lark, a colorful, high-spirited entertainment which, if nothing else, is worth seeing just for Henri Decae's dazzling widescreen cinematography and the sultry performances of Moreau and Bardot; the former soft-spoken and elegant, the latter a voluptuous firebrand. In fact, Bardot almost steals the film from her co-star and led critic Pauline Kael to remark that the international sex symbol "has never been more enchanting than in parts of this movie."

Certainly, the contrast between Bardot and Moreau was the driving force behind most of the advance publicity on the film. In Malle on Malle, edited by Philip French, the filmmaker stated that Viva Maria! "was so hyped by the French media....When I got on the set on the first day of shooting there were something like seventy journalists. Not only the French press, but the American press, the Italian press - it was ridiculous. In the months before we started they'd built up this rivalry between Moreau and Bardot; there were rumors in the press that they hated each other, which was completely untrue. They presented it as a duel between the two - 'Who was going to win?' - which of course was not what the film was about at all. It was about friendship - a kind of rivalry, but based on friendship. So, it created an almost unbearable atmosphere, and shooting was very hard....we had so many locations all over Mexico, we had a huge crew, the logistics were impossible. Jeanne and Brigitte would take turns getting sick. We had to reschedule constantly. But writing the screenplay with Jean-Claude Carriere was great fun."

It was Malle's idea to take a buddy movie and subvert it. For inspiration, he instructed Carriere to consider the Gary Cooper - Burt Lancaster relationship in Vera Cruz (1954), which was a favorite Western of the two collaborators. By replacing the traditional male protagonists with two strong females, Viva Maria! not only worked as an amusing gender twist on a popular formula but was seen in some quarters as a political statement. Malle said German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder later told him that Viva Maria! fascinated him and his fellow students at Berlin University. Malle recalled, "It was a time of those radical student movements, and they saw in the heroines the two different approaches to revolution. Bardot is action - 'Let's do it,' armed struggle, terrorism. The other one, Moreau, tries to achieve her goals legally, to change society without violence. This was, of course, way beyond my expectations of how it would be perceived."

One person who saw the dangerous implications of the film, which ends with a South American government being overthrown and the Catholic Church losing its powerful control over the populace, was J. Edgar Hoover. The F.B.I. director had been outraged by Bardot's unashamed display of her body in And God Created Woman (1956), and when the actress toured the U.S. in support of Viva Maria!, he had his agents follow her every movement while compiling a dossier on her. In his view, she was a sexual subversive and a threat to society. Or maybe he was just jealous of her wardrobe (in recent biographies of Hoover, his fondness for wearing women's clothes has been well documented).

Despite the F.B.I. director's fears, Viva Maria! had little impact on American audiences, but if it had been properly promoted it might have built up a cult following. Even so, Malle still had reservations about the film: "It's one of my films that I wish I could remake, because I know it could have worked much better. For instance, there was something that didn't work - partly to do with the script, partly to do with casting. I thought it was quite funny to make George Hamilton into Jesus Christ. But the irony was not perceived, and I don't blame the spectators. They took his character quite seriously....The humor didn't come through....That's the danger of pastiche. It's a very risky genre. Yet if you see it today, Viva Maria! has great moments. It is funny and inventive and the two girls are excellent." One also wonders what the film might have been like if Malle had cast Julie Christie and Sarah Mills in the leads. The director actually considered this possibility during a difficult period during pre-production when he was having trouble with Moreau's and Bardot's talent agents. As it stands, Viva Maria! deserves to be re-evaluated in terms of Malle's career, and maybe some enterprising Hollywood producer will even decide to remake it. But who could compare to Bardot and Moreau as the lead actresses?

Producer: Oscar Dancigers, Louis Malle
Director: Louis Malle
Second Unit Director: Juan Luis Bunuel, Manuel Munoz, Volker Schlondorff
Screenplay: Jean-Claude Carriere
Production Design: Bernard Evein
Cinematography: Henri Decae
Costume Design: Ghislain Uhry
Film Editing: Suzanne Baron
Original Music: Georges Delerue
Principal Cast: Jeanne Moreau (Maria I), Brigitte Bardot (Maria Fitzgerald O'Malley), George Hamilton (Flores), Gregor von Rezzori (Diogene), Paulette Dubost (Mme Diogene), Carlos Lopez Moctezuma (Don Rodriguez), Claudio Brook (Rodolfo).
C-115m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

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