Wednesday, October 13, 2010

#77: And God Created Woman

(Roger Vadim, 1956)

And God Created Woman is not a good movie. It is, in purely objective terms, perhaps one of the most mediocre films in the Criterion catalog, a passably directed, poorly acted, inadvertently attractive movie. The fact that it sits next to Wild Strawberries and The Seven Samurai in the collection is entirely a testament to Brigitte Bardot.

Well, check that, Brigitte Bardot's body. See, Bardot isn't much of an actress. Say what you want about Marilyn Monroe, but she displayed more energy, more sizzle, more style and wit in The Seven Year Itch a year earlier than Bardot could probably have mustered in an entire career - actually, definitely, since she tried and could never quite do it (undoubtedly, her most relevant performance was in Godard's aptly titled masterpiece Contempt, where Bardot's natural gifts are almost used against her - thankfully she quit while she was behind in the early 70s). So I say with all due respect to sex goddesses that Bardot has little to offer in And God Created Woman but her body.

The film itself is not much better, sporting a melodramatic plot that would have made Douglas Sirk roll his eyes and a jumbled mishmash of dated sexual and racial politics that is so ancient you can almost hear the creaking underneath a line like, "She's brave enough to do what she wants, when she wants." Chuck Stephens's essay which accompanied the Criterion release of the film ten years ago barely even acknowledges its existence: the author discusses the actual movie for just one paragraph, changes the conversation to the almost criminally superior Contempt for another, and devotes a full six surrounding paragraphs to Bardot specifically. "Eventually," he writes, undoubtedly while holding back laughter, "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." So, um, yeah. People wonder why Armageddon is in the collection.

There are a few well-executed moments in And God Created Woman. The scene of Bardot coming down to her new husband's family, who are all waiting for the couple to eat dinner with them, wearing only a robe and promptly gathering up food and carrying it back to the bedroom is fucking ballsy. It's just a "holy shit, this lady is punk rock" kind of moment. But for every moment like that, there's one where her character feels hopelessly tied to gender stereotypes, like when she knows doom is on the horizon when her brother-in-law moves home. Is this lady kick-ass or vulnerable? Is she supposed to be tamed or can nothing destroy her? Are we really meant to take away from the film that wild women will destroy the men who love them, and only through forgiveness can they both be happy?

Just to be clear, I am entirely aware that Brigitte Bardot is an incredibly beautiful woman. I just happen to feel this is not enough to sustain a film. It's impossible for me to view And God Created Woman from the perspective of a person who lived the culture of 1956. So I don't know what it would have been like to see a woman portrayed in this way for the first time in film. Obviously Vadim knew what he was doing, naming the film what he named it and shooting Bardot (his then wife, dude was creepy btw) the way he shot her. But from a modern perspective, all the sex that's left is a lingering feeling that something here was dirty that isn't anymore. Instead of feeling alive with energy, the movie feels long dead, the casualty of new paradigms of sexual politics and sexual cinema.

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