And God Created Woman
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Elements of film culture that enjoy fashionable peak moments can date, given a few decades - acting styles change with the clothes, editing and camera strategies seem cool and then lose steam, and so on. There may be only one constant, the integer in the equation that rarely if ever loses amperage: sex-symbol stardom. Ordinarily what made filmgoers' heads buzz with libidinal fireworks back then will still do the job today. (Filmgoers in the mid-21st-century may wonder why we as a culture are at all interested in giant CGI robots, but the allure of Charlize Theron will not be in dispute.) This chemical reaction is as old as movies themselves, and often has nothing much to do with real-live beauty or sexiness; the camera has its own, sometimes unpredictable way of seeing us. However you may want to quantify it, it reached something of a tipping point in the '50s and '60s, as social norms about what was permissible in films fell under attack by both restless audiences and rangy filmmakers. Of this moment, Brigitte Bardot was the primary goddess on the altar of pop culture's love affair with movie sex.
When she first appeared, as if out of our dreams, in Roger Vadim's ...And God Created Woman (1956), nobody had seen a movie character quite like her before. Sure, Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich and Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe had filled the world's daydreams with curvy thoughts of sensual bliss, but it was Bardot that shone a spotlight on the idea of rampant sexuality to the exclusion, practically, of all else. Watch her in this rather silly and quaintly exploitative film and you see a new machine at work - the postwar audiences had a right to be shocked and stunned by her Juliete, a seaside village tramp so willfully wanton and so careless with her clothes that the fact of her existence feels almost like a threat to the social order. It might be the first legit feature completely and unapologetically centered on a woman's sexual availability.
"With that mouth," someone tells Bardot's vapid, slinky slut, "you can have anything you want." It's a scandalous line (probably descandalized in its original English subtitles), but it's also an undeniable acknowledgment of the truth. Juliete is a traffic-stopping manifestation of irrational male desire if the movies ever produced one. Bardot is not actually very voluptuous, in the precise meaning of the word, but that hardly matters in the face of her mind-boggling assemblage of swiveling hips, swan neck, aggressive posture, far-apart Egyptian-cat eyes, permanently pursed mega-lips, and a voluminous head of hair that can only be described as a post-coital free-for-all. Bardot brings this package together without overdone vamping or campy come-hither shtick - she just is, dressed in haphazard leftovers that seem always ready to shred themselves and fall to the ground. Any skirt whose side hem isn't split up her thigh to within an inch of her beltline is simply too restrictive. Any opportunity to water-soak whatever she does put on is taken without ceremony; late in the film she is saved from a potentially dangerous sailboat jaunt that occurs in the story for the sole purpose of dropping Bardot into the drink and then watching her emerge, saturated to the skin.
...And God Created Woman has a story - in sweaty St. Tropez, Juliete the town orphan/teen-tramp is virtually cast out by her neighbors after dallying on the docked yacht of bajillionaire Curd Jurgens, who wants to buy up the coastline; her fiancé dumps her but his younger brother, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, steps up and offers to marry her, despite everyone's objections. Various characters' intentions and desires criss-cross, with Juliete stranded in the middle with her symbolic rabbits, but Vadim was never interested in plot per se, from this, his debut, through an erratic career that ended up in the '90s doing episodic television. If any of his films are memorable, it's because of their women - Bardot, Jane Fonda, Jeanne Moreau, Angie Dickinson - which Vadim, famously, would often seduce and/or marry and/or career-manage in real life. (He had in fact wooed and married the teen-model Bardot before either had ever made a film; after both became famous with ...And God Created Woman, they almost immediately divorced.) Vadim's world revolved around the allure of female sexual power to such an uninterrogated extent that one might not choose to consider it an aesthetic or thematic obsession, but a neurotic compulsion. Vadim seemed to do a lot of his thinking in his pants (he even ended up in the '70s making a post-Emmanuelle Sylvia Kristel movie entitled Une femme fidéle), and assumed, perhaps rightly, that a large chunk of his audience did the same.
Oddly, Vadim and this film were beloved by the hardcore cineaste crowd at Cahiers du cinema, predominantly Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, as both were gearing up to start making movies of their own. It's hard to parse today how Vadim could be seen in the '50s as "our only truly modern filmmaker," as they termed him, until you read their often cryptic explanations, which boil down to a respect for the horndog director because he is both unpretentious (Truffaut's biggest concern) and a singular writer-director personality. The nature of that personality or its relevance mattered little to these young turks in 1956; they swooned over the man's unabashed focus and his defiant confidence in his own priorities. He was, this way, closer to a real cinema artist than any number of "professional" directors, regardless of how much Vadim seemed only interested in evocations of raunch.
Look at Bardot - what else, Vadim would likely argue, could I possibly do? There's little denying this reality: movies are voyeurism, watching with a sexually charged air of privilege and power over the mysterious figures on the screen, and the capacity for a movie star to galvanize our primal sex drives is an essential strand of cinematic DNA. Bardot's force field is a fact of nature, but possibly (and probably) only as it is captured on film - making it a natural axiom of cinema.
Producer: Raoul J. Lévy
Director: R. Vadim
Screenplay: R. Vadim, R. Lévy
Cinematography: Armand Thirard
Music: Paul Misraki
Film Editing: Victoria Mercanton
Cast: Brigitte Bardot (Juliete Hardy), Curd Jurgens (Eric Carradine), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Michel Tardieu), Jeanne Marken (Madame Morin), Jean Tissier (M. Vigier-Lefranc), Isabelle Corey (Lucienne), Jacqueline Ventura (Mme Vigier-Lefranc), Jacques Ciron (Le secrétaire d'Eric), Paul Faivre (M. Morin), Jany Mourey (Le déléguée de l'évêché).
by Michael Atkinson