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By the early 1970s, internationally acclaimed director Franois Truffaut was thought by many critics to be on the decline. One of the French New Wave's shining lights, the filmmaker began exploring genres like science fiction and suspense thrillers with films like Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and The Bride Wore Black (1968), interspersed with the ongoing adventures of his cinematic alter ego, Antoine Doinel.
When it opened in 1972, A Gorgeous Girl Like Me confounded even his staunchest admirers with its comedic portrayal of a murderous female protagonist who manipulates the men around her. This was in fact his third variation on that theme after his prior dabbling in film noir with The Bride Wore Black and the troubled Mississippi Mermaid (1969), which was recut against his wishes.
Like those other films, A Gorgeous Girl Like Me originated as a crime novel, in this case written by Henry Farrell. The author of the source novel for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Farrell also penned the screenplays for Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) and What's the Matter with Helen? (1971). Truffaut loved the novel upon his first reading, claiming in the book Truffaut by Truffaut, "I read it collapsing with laughter at every page." He immediately envisioned the story as a vehicle for Bernadette Lafont, his very first leading lady in the short film "Les mistons" (1957). When the director and actress first met, Truffaut recalled, "we were under the Fourth Republic but I saw right away that she was an aristocrat. She was posing at the time for sweater ads and she accepted the idea that we would make our debuts together."
However, the adaptation did not initiate with Truffaut; in fact, the rights to the novel were snatched up by Columbia before its publication with producer Martin Manulis slated to shepherd it as part of a three-picture deal with the studio. In a September 4, 1968 memo to Columbia's Head of Casting, Billy Gordon, Manulis pitched a colorful array of actors for the two leading roles. For example, his suggestions for Lafont's character, incarcerated murderess Camille Bliss, included such names as Jane Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Joey Heatherton, Sharon Tate, Tuesday Weld, Ewa Aulin, Britt Ekland, and even a young Margot Kidder. The other pivotal role of sociologist Stanislas Prvine (originally named Carter), which ultimately went to Andr Dussollier, inspired Manulis to offer potential names like Dustin Hoffman, John Lennon, Alan Arkin, Gene Wilder, Michael Crawford, Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law, Jon Voight, Gary Lockwood, and Ryan O'Neal. The mind reels at how these combinations might have turned out.
The project, which also briefly bore the more blunt title of Bitch Kitty, was attached in the industry trades to several screenwriters including Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso, the head writers for the TV show The Monkees, and Elliott Baker, screenwriter of Luv (1967). However, Columbia shelved it after a few months, and Manulis' deal ended with only two films, Luv and Duffy (1968).
Enter Truffaut, who was fresh off the experience of the now-respected but turbulent production of Two English Girls (1971), which he referred to as "morbid" in interviews after its initial release in heavily cut form. In a 1973 interview for Time Out, he explained that he found the prospect of A Gorgeous Girl Like Me "an experience of vitality because I found it necessary to go in the opposite direction of Two English Girls." Unfortunately the hostile public reception forced him to reevaluate it his level of satisfaction with the finished product: "I can't be satisfied because when one makes a comedy, it should make the audience laugh... If people didn't find it funny there must be something wrong."
The film courted some minor controversy even before its release when Truffaut requested to George Stevens, Jr. to have it pulled from the American Film Institute Festival as an act of protest over the festival's banning of another title, Costa-Gavras' volatile political thriller, State of Siege (1972). Most English-speaking critics were hostile to the film's pitch-black comedy when it was finally released, with New Republic attacking it as Truffaut's "absolutely stupidest picture to date... Far from spicy immorality, the final effect of the film is nasty." However, it found a few admirers with dissenting opinions like the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner who found it "a black comedy played to the hilt, an outrageous farce in delightfully bad taste." Unfazed by the film's reception, Truffaut immediately leapt into his next project, which turned out to be one of his most beloved titles and an Oscar® winner as well: Day for Night (1973).
Today, A Gorgeous Girl Like Me is one of Truffaut's least-seen features thanks to its scarcity on home video and the lack of revival screenings; in fact, only a handful of countries like Australia, Brazil, and Hong Kong have even released it on DVD at all. At least its lush score by Truffaut's regular composer, Georges Delerue, has appeared consistently on film music collections over the years and kept interest in the film alive. For a modern audience privy to the direction of Truffaut's career in the 1970s, which culminated in the cheerful noir playground of his final feature, Confidentially Yours (1983), its charms are much easier to appreciate as a daring, transitional little diamond in the rough from one of cinema's most valuable cinematic voices.
By Nathaniel Thompson