The star and the leftovers
It was the day before a bad flu confined me to bed. I was determined to take a look at Et Dieu créa la femme (Vadim, 1956), curious to watch again the movie that launched Brigitte Bardot and prepared the Nouvelle Vague.
- “Am I only this?” complained the movie. “Will I never be something else?”
- “I am sure your charm is intact”, I said between two coughing fits.
And it was true. The charm was intact. Not the obsolete charm of the past, but the innocent charm of the present. By watching again movies on television, one verifies more and more to which extent there was already a lot of pre-television (management, digestion, edification) in old movies and in numerous “classics” (La beauté du diable being a recent example). This makes it all the easier to spot the movies where the authors had called on the audience to witness the birth of something. There is cinema when the emotion of the beginnings prevails and there is television when it is about seasoning the leftovers. It may be because Bardot, ultimate star of French cinema, has never been seen recycled on television, that there is some curiosity to watch her beginning in a small, almost amateurish movie, produced during the ice age of the Qualité Française by Raoul Lévy and directed by Roger Vadim: Et Dieu créa la femme.
What is beautiful in this rather modest movie is that the characters are like the audience of the film: they discover, suddenly astonished, that the shameless Saint-Tropez starlet has not only the means to seduce them (because she is beautiful) but also to make them sound hollow (because she is a star). Her thirst for the absolute renders relative the virile parading of the little males who thought too quickly they were in a sexy movie. The movie, which had started on a quasi-bucolic mode, suddenly falls into the unknown, to the great displeasure of its characters. The three men (Jurgens, Marquand and Trintignant) learn with various levels of success that such a woman cannot be possessed. The woman discovers that she is not like the others since she doesn’t know how to lie.
We have stopped a long time ago to be saddened or disappointed by Vadim’s subsequent movies. In Et Dieu créa la femme, we can see that his filming is already without energy, his script without rhythm and that he tells a story with no nerves. We cannot even say that he looks at Bardot with the exaltation of a bashful lover. But this does not matter much. For the strength of the movie lies mainly in its dialogues. Because Bardot says sentences that only she could have said at the time and that are enough to protect the modernity of the movie. From “I don’t like to say good bye” or “I work at being happy” to “what a nitwit this rabbit!” (1), Bardot’s short sentences are strong because they are, already, without possible reply.
Did Vadim write this dialogue or did he simply make himself available to the promise of this voice? It doen’t matter since he was present at the moment of the birth of a myth, and that this presence, still today, makes Et Dieu créa la femme a small event in the history of French cinema. It doesn’t matter because Vadim was himself just starting his career and he’s not yet affected by his future appalling know-how. In 1956, the simple act of filming a dialogue which is not the then predominant tit-for-tat of filmed theatre, a dialogue which calls less for a reply than for silence and which leaves the other characters stunned, was forcing Vadim to make proper shots and (almost) to rethink movie making.
On television, the actor is a function. In cinema, the actor was also an enigma. It is not exaggerated to defend that every time a filmmaker has stuck to this enigma, this has disrupted – not always intentionally – the “language” of cinema. It is not exaggerated either to consider the stormy transformations of this language as a consequence of a succession of love stories, singular enough to be lived and universal enough to be offered to the public. Is this vision a bit rosy? Indeed, but when one looks at today successful movies – from Le grand bleu to L’ours – which stabilise the image of a possible consensus between the audience and the general public, one understands better why none of these movies actually innovates in film making. They do very well without actors – and a fortiori without stars (2). Post-advertising aesthetics: as soon as the product is the star, there is no point putting it in competition with only one of its components.
(1) A sentence which Bardot must regret today considering her terrifying discourse on the purity of animals opposed to the human stain.
(2) It must be possible to re-tell the history of cinema starting from the singularities of great actors. That is what the Canadian Paul Warren did in The Secret of the American Star-System.
The French version of this text was originally published in Libération, 12 November 1988 and can be found in Serge Daney, Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1997, pp.34-35. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.