The French cinema star whose sexy, liberated style outraged and inspired in equal measure is about to turn 75. Agnès Poirier finds out how the pinup girl became an existentialist icon
After the internation uproar and scandal provoked by the 1956 film And God Created Woman, Brigitte Bardot said she wished she had never been born. Now, as Bardot – "the French export as important as Renault cars" according to Charles de Gaulle – turns 75 on Monday, exhibitions at national museums and private galleries, alongside tributes at fashion weeks in Paris, London and New York, are throwing the spotlight back on to one of the last living icons of the 20th century.
When she retired in 1973, aged just 39 but with more than 50 films under her belt, Bardot withdrew to her beloved Madrague, her retreat in St Tropez where she could dedicate herself to animals and a barefoot Mediterranean life. She would only leave her home to protest about animal rights and make some ill-advised comments about immigration. She was once linked to Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front but has never been a member or even a sympathiser. In fact, to this day, she has never stopped being herself: plain-speaking and natural. She has never resorted to any cosmetic surgery, whereas so many of her contemporaries including Sophia Loren, who also turns 75 this week, put their hopes of immortal beauty in the surgeon's knife. Bardot has retained her authenticity. Her story is that of a refusal not only of hypocrisy and moral grudges, but also of caution, calculation and premeditation.
When she burst on to the public stage in the early 1950s, France and the world weren't prepared for her. "Women of my generation all remember her first cover of Elle in 1950," remembers French fashion historian Nicole Parrot. Bardot was barely 16. "She had short hazelnut hair and the magnificent posture of a dancer. She represented something that had never had its place before in society or in fashion: that of the jeune fille."
Before Bardot, teenagers were hidden from the public eye and from couture. Now here she was, rid of childhood's roundness, but not quite yet a woman. "On one side there were girls dressed by their mothers in blue navy skirts that they had already outgrown, with clumsy manners and chubby cheeks, and on the other side, married women. Nothing in between," continues Parrot. Nor were there magazines for teenagers or fashion for the jeunes filles. "Bardot's eruption changed all this. She created a fashion all of her own, which spread like gunpowder. And now, women across the world dress like jeune filles as long as they can!" Nabokov's Lolita was published five years later.
When Bardot became a woman, the world went mad. At 18, she married Roger Vadim, the film director who would four years later cast her as the amoral Juliete in And God Created Woman. In the years that saw James Dean and Elvis Presley arrive on the world scene, her very form and gaze seemed to embody something of the breaking revolution that no one had anticipated. With And God Created Woman this reached a head. Bardot's Juliete was a woman with a neverending sexual appetite. The scene in which she dances barefoot and dishevelled, hair loose, skin glowing with sweat to the sound of furious carioca, became an instant and defining moment in the history of cinema. The New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther, wrote: "In fact, it isn't what Mademoiselle Bardot does in bed but what she might do that drives the three principal male characters into an erotic frenzy. She is a thing of mobile contours – a phenomenon you have to see to believe." The film scandalised America. Its success and the outrage it provoked then returned, like a boomerang, to Europe.
'Immoral from head to toe'
In 1958, Raymond Cartier, then editor of Paris-Match, dedicated eight pages to an investigation of "le cas Bardot". He summoned psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists to try to unpick the roots of the Bardot phenomenon, and to ask what lessons could be drawn about "the modern crowd's psychology and the evolution of today's mores" that could be used in helping to turn back the tide.
He scrutinised in particular the events in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Providence and Memphis, where cinema managers were arrested for showing And God Created Woman and judges in wigs and robes showed up in delegation to express their outrage at its licentious nature. Would Bardot be banned from American screens? Paris-Match psychoanalysts proceeded to delve into her comfortable childhood and upbringing in the smart 16th arrondissement of Paris, near the Eiffel tower. She lived in a seven-room apartment with an older sister, a nanny and parents whom she spoke formally to, using the term "vous" rather than "tu". The family cat Crocus, "having become as bourgeois as its owners, didn't even think of devouring" the birds that lived in a little white cage.
Eight pages later, Cartier concluded: "Bardot is immoral, from head to toe." Agreeing with the American censors of the east coast, he declared: ban Bardot.
Faced with the bourgeois backlash, French intellectuals suddenly understood that there was much more at stake than just the lovely curves of a young star. In a 1959 essay about Bardot called The Lolita Syndrome, Simone de Beauvoir foresaw Bardot's entire life with its upheavals and triumphs. She called Bardot the "locomotive of women's history", and compared her irruption into French society with existentialism, presenting Bardot as the first and most liberated woman of postwar France.
De Beauvoir wrote: "When Marlene Dietrich exhibited her silk-wrapped thighs while singing in her husky voice, she was casting a spell . . . Brigitte Bardot doesn't cast spells; she acts. Her flesh doesn't have the generosity that symbolises passivity. Her clothes are not fetishes and when she undresses, she reveals no mystery. She simply shows off her body, which is in constant movement. She walks, she dances, she moves. In the hunting game, she is both hunter and prey. Males are an object for her, as much as she is an object for them. This is precisely what hurts males' pride." It was clear to all that Bardot, like Albert Camus's stranger, experienced the world through her senses.
Nowadays, feminists both in Britain and the US would shriek in horror at the thought that Bardot might be heralded as the emblem of the liberated woman. But that is just how designer Nicole Farhi remembers her: "Bardot was totally liberated; it was extraordinary to see, especially at a time when no women were allowed to be, and it was all the more unusual that she came from a bourgeois family. It was fantastic to see that she could just throw conventions away. She lived the way she pleased, she dressed the way she wanted; in that sense her freedom was very provocative."
Provocative but never lewd. "A liberated woman is the opposite of an easy and frivolous woman," wrote De Beauvoir. For her, Bardot's sense of freedom was absolute, almost existential. Unlike today's self-acclaimed liberated young women, who claim to feel empowered by the act of pole-dancing, with Bardot there is no attempt at manipulation or deception.
"Bardot's naturalness seems more perverse than any kind of sophistication. To despise as she does jewels, makeup and high heels is to refuse to transform oneself into an idol. It is to assert oneself the equal of men. It is to recognise that between men and women, there is only desire and mutual pleasure. This is precisely what made her appear so dangerous in the eyes of society," wrote De Beauvoir.
"The beautiful thing about her is that, although she had marvellous breasts, she wouldn't flaunt them like Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida did with plunging décolletages," says Farhi. "Bardot wore tight polo necks and T-shirts and oozed sensuality while being covered." Contained eroticism is always the wildest and most powerful kind. "I think Bardot represents one trend of feminism," says British philosopher AC Grayling. "She represents the power of women. What's iconic about her is her shape, the way she occupies space. Because shape has a moral as well as a physical meaning."
'Desire and pleasure'
As De Beauvoir foresaw so well, Bardot would very early on refuse to be "a good wife" and "a good mother". She fell in and out of love, marrying four times in the process, broke hundreds of hearts, stayed, left, gave birth to a boy, and discovered she wasn't cut out for motherhood, leaving her son to be brought up by his father. But she wasn't acting out any rebellious impulses. As De Beauvoir put it: "Bardot is neither rebellious nor immoral; this is why morality hasn't got a chance with her. Good and Evil are part of the conventions she wouldn't even dream of respecting. She doesn't try to shock or provoke. She makes no demands. She has no idea what her rights or her duties could be. She follows her inclinations. She eats when she's hungry and makes love as simply. Desire and pleasure seem to her truer than precepts and conventions. She doesn't criticise anyone. She does what she pleases and this is what is so troubling." Looking at Bardot's posture and gaze in this light, it is easy to see why she became an existentialist icon.
Bardot had so fascinated the intellectual heavyweights of the day that Marguerite Duras and Françoise Sagan also deemed her a fascinating object of study. In 1975, two years after her retirement, Sagan wrote a book about Bardot: "She was success, money, love incarnated and she didn't see why and who she should reimburse. She wasn't ashamed of herself, she didn't apologise for her absolute triumph whereas so many others apologised for their half-victories. And this is why she scandalised everyone," writes Sagan.
Perhaps, Bardot's most formidable asset, in the typical French fashion, was that she didn't care. When Jane Birkin made Don Juan with her in 1973, she was stunned: "[Brigitte] never wanted to do a film that was outside France because she didn't want to leave her dear France. She seemed to have no ambition whatsoever, which made her a very curiously attractive creature because she was never seeking any sort of approval. To the contrary, it didn't seem to matter at all. She just didn't care. "
"She was indifferent to the power she had," says French writer and playwright Paul Fournel. "She didn't really want to be an actress, a singer or a sex symbol, but it just happened that way. She had such a physical presence. She had a way to manage her beauty, which was very forward-looking. The woman she was in 1956 was already the woman post-1968. She was so modern that way." Nicole Farhi agrees: "She loved living barefoot without a care in the world, and certainly without a care of what people might say about her. All this is very French."
Her carefree-ness combined with her faultless beauty and sincerity made her incredibly subversive. To the point that French conservatives and morality leagues would often point the finger at her and her films for the breakdown of society. When three teenagers gratuitously killed a pensioner in Angers in 1958, it was Bardot, not existentialist Camus, who was the culprit; she, alone, was destabilising French society. More potent than any political manifesto it seems, the way she led her life, with total abandon, on and out of screen, could only be corrupting the French youth.
"Film director Louis Malle had the most incredible stories of her," remembers British playwright David Hare. "When they were filming together in a shopping arcade in Lausanne, a woman in a fur coat came up while Bardot was acting, spat full in her face and screamed 'You are undermining the bourgeoisie.'
Who has that power today?"
Bardot on Bardot
'I have been very happy, very rich, very beautiful, much adulated, very famous and very unhappy'
'Animals have never betrayed me. They are an easy prey, as I have been throughout my career. So we feel the same. I love them'
'I started out as a lousy actress and have remained one'
'I am not finding pregnancy much of a joy. I am afraid of childbirth, but I can't find a way of avoiding it'
'I am really not interested in the cinema. I loathed it when I started six years ago, and I don't enjoy it even now'
'It is sad to grow old but nice to ripen'
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016