Released in Paris, to little initial acclaim, in 1956, And God Created Woman was scarcely Brigitte Bardot’s first film. By most filmographers’ reckonings, it was her seventeenth. You mean to say you don’t remember The Girl in the Bikini? How about Nero’s Big Weekend? Never mind, you’re not alone.
So why should it be, some forty-plus years since And God Created Woman’s inception, that Roger Vadim’s directorial debut—which went on to gross $4 million in box-office receipts when it was released in America in1958—remains so fondly misremembered as the cinematic birthplace of the extraordinary Bardot? Could it be that Vadim (1928–2000), a fellow-traveler with fashion-model existentialists and a former journalist for Paris-Match, knew something his predecessors had not? He was, after all, his 21-year-old starlet’s husband, and had been her lover since she was just fifteen: “She was my wife, my daughter, and my mistress,” he later wrote. Was it Vadim’s familiarity with his material, and his ability to tailor it to the contours of Bardot’s natural talents, that produced such results? And would, eventually, such familiarity breed Contempt?
“Roger Vadim is ‘with it’,” wrote Jean-Luc Godard, then still a critic, in 1957. And in Vadim’s films, Godard claimed to have found—as he had in the collaborations between Frank Tashlin and Jayne Mansfield—a truly modern cinema. Vadim, who later claimed to have coined the term “discotheque,” would surely have agreed. “I felt like the young Bonaparte at the beginning of his Italian campaign,” Vadim claimed, some thirty years later, of his first day on the set, “I felt certain of victory.” Those words come from Vadim’s 1987 little-black-book-like memoir, Bardot Deneuve Fonda, a chronicle of the conquests, onscreen and off, of the director whose films, as the years went by, sank ever lower into misanthropic depths. Let his epitaph remain Pretty Maids All in a Row, in which a womanizer’s sexual victories are indistinguishable from his passion for serial killing. If God created woman, could Vadim have created Bardot? We know only this: both God and Vadim are dead, while Bardot—whose taunting nakedness seemed suddenly, and perhaps only coincidentally, to attain a kind of beatification under Vadim’s guiding paw—lives on.
David Thomson once noted that the appearance of Bardot, sunning in her bikini on the beach, remedied Europe’s lingering postwar austerity—yet it seemed that something more magical still was at play upon those sands. More a force against reason, or a blinding special effect—not unlike Einstein’s equations, or Elvis’s pelvis—Bardot warped cultural memory as easily as she bent a projector-beam of light. “She comes,” Vadim later wrote, “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.” Super-abundant and extraterrestrial, Bardot was far too human, yet far beyond “real.” Once seen, she could not be unseen, and in And God Created Woman, she was seen as never before.
An adolescent Eve in the serpent-filled Eden, Bardot plays Juliette, the frowsy free spirit of St. Tropez: an entity so natural that shoes seem to betray her feet, and on whom nothing seems as pornographic as a wedding dress. Juliette runs on instinct, spurning the advances of leering millionaire Carradine (Curd Jürgens), but lusting after a hulking cad named Antoine (Christian Marquand). When Antoine in turn spurnsJuliette, she impulsively marries his sincere but rather naïve younger brother, Michel (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Eventually, Juliette will brave fire and sea, ecstasy and despair, and—as a result of her unquenchable desire—erupt into a kind of Mambo-inspired madness. But when Vadim first unveils her, we see her as the serpents do: naked in the garden. “There lies Brigitte,” Time magazine announced of the moment, forking its tongue, “stretched from end to end of the CinemaScope screen, bottoms up and bareas a censor’s eyeball.”
Designed to steam viewers’ glasses rather than polish their lenses, And God Created Woman had a similar effect on those censors, whose eyes, upon contact with BB, began to fill with fog—and outrage. At the film’s initial screening for the Parisian censors, Vadim later reported, one became so incensed that he demanded that the scene in which Bardot is photographed bottomless, parading before a teenage boy, be removed. Vadim chuckled and reran the scene for the censor; there was no such scene. Bardot was, in fact, wearing a black leotard throughout the entire episode.The censor insisted that Vadim had shot two versions, and had somehow substituted them by sleight-of-hand. “That was one of the most amazing things about Brigitte’s presence on film,” Vadim mused. “People often thought she was naked when she wasn’t.”
“Her ass is a song,” someone admires of Bardot early on in And God Created Woman. Perhaps they meant a siren’s wail. For, from that moment of creation on, Bardot—sex symbol, superstar, icon, mirage—became the tune that lodged in history’s head, the song that lured censors toward fog-hidden rocks and smashed forever the prudish hulls of sexually prohibitive cinema. And when Godard cast Bardot in his withering Contempt—a cryptic remake of And God Created Woman in which sex, marriage, and filmmaking perish together in a Ballardian crash—he sang her song from the highest mountains while his camera loitered on her lower extremes. Yet if Contempt is the summation of Bardot’s naked rise to fame, it is also a meditation on her magic. In it, Bardot explains to her husband—a French screenwriter who fancies himself a sour Dean Martin (played by Michel Piccoli)—the parable of Martin and the ass. “Martin rides his ass to the market,” she says, “where he trades it in for a magic carpet. When the carpet refuses to fly, Martin asks the carpet merchant what the problem could be. ‘In order for the carpet to fly,’ the merchant tells him, ‘you must forget about that ass.’”
If Martin forgets the ass, his carpet will fly, and from on high, new worlds he’ll see. But Vadim was no Martin; he was, instead, a mere rug vendor who knew that, with the right sales pitch, he could sell the dream of flying carpets. And with And God Created Woman—a bold, sometime ridiculous, and altogether indelible film—he did just that. Yet what Vadim never seemed to recognize sufficiently was the very thing that neither God nor Godard would dare deny. That Brigitte Bardot—a force beyond reason whose very being seemed to merge both unforgettable ass and magic carpet ride—might have a flight plan all her own.
Chuck Stephens is the film critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, a frequent contributor to Film Comment, and West Coast Editor of Filmmaker magazine.