Vie privée
Rosa Maria Martelo
March 23, 2024

Following Zazie Dans Le Métro (1960), a film adaptation of the experimental story of the same name by Raymond Queneau, Louis Malle directed his fourth film, Vie Privée (1962), with Brigitte Bardot (Jille) and Marcello Mastroianni (Fabio) in the leading roles. It is possible these two actors were chosen in response to the poor box office performance of Zazie: Bardot was already an established star and Mastroianni was fresh from the success of La Dolce Vita, by Fellini (1960). Louis Malle initially wanted to adapt a play by Noël Coward, but Brigitte Bardot’s vocal displeasure at the constant invasion of her privacy by the paparazzi led the director and screenwriter to change tack and devise an original plot for the film, based on the actress’s own life. In this way, Louis Malle ended up filming Brigitte Bardot more or less playing herself. Later on, rather unhappy with the result, he would confess that with Viva Maria! (1965) filmmaker and actress had been able to make up for some of the dissatisfaction they felt with Vie Privée.

Nowadays it is (happily!) difficult to imagine the media persecution of actress, singer and dancer Brigitte Bardot after the North American success of Et Dieu…Créa La Femme, by Roger Vadim. The film premiered in France to not much notice in late 1956, but it was extraordinarily successful in the United States over the following two years. It was even said that Bardot made more money for France with this film than Renault did selling cars. In the North American version, the title of the film was extended to give Bardot the “sex symbol” aura that the French and the rest of the world would so celebrate from that point onwards (though they would also condemn it, often with unthinkable violence): “And God Created Woman…But The Devil Invented Brigitte Bardot.”

When Louis Malle and his screenwriter decided to turn their attention to the ordeal that Brigitte Bardot’s private life had become, the actress had already experienced such serious media pursuits as when, pregnant, she had been unable to leave her house for the hospital and had to give birth to her son at home. In the 1960s, an intimate photograph of Bardot was so valuable that photographers would rent apartments with a line of sight into the actress’s, in the hope of capturing her through the windows, and would set up shop in the street outside her house even in the middle of the Parisian winter. It was only in 1970 that France passed legislation prohibiting these forms of harassment, with Bardot’s case being one of the principal drivers. Soon after the premiere of Vie Privée, Godard chose the house of Curzio Malaparte, which sits on top of a cliff, as the set for Le Mépris (1963), in an attempt to keep the paparazzi away from Bardot — though this turned out to be impossible.

In the screenplay for Vie Privée there are a number of points of contact with Brigitte’s own life. Just like Malle’s character, Brigitte had left her bourgeoise family home to study dance in Paris. And she had also fallen in love very young, in her case with Roger Vadim, then an aspiring filmmaker who introduced her to the world of cinema and who Bardot’s family considered a dreadful suitor. It was Malle who explained, in a television interview at the time of the premiere for Vie Privée, that the scene in which Jill is insulted in a lift by a cleaning woman was inspired by a real-life event, which, according to the director, was even more violent than in the film. Moreover, this is an important scene — Bardot had spoken many times about the event involving an attack with a fork — because it accentuates something that would go on to mark B.B.’s meteoric rise: the aggression that her manifest indifference to ideas of discreet, sexually passive femininity could provoke in others. Brigitte Bardot embodied desire and sensuality not only on screen. In real life she was also a woman who always acknowledged her many passions and her preference for commitment-free affairs. From the end of the 1950s through the 1960s and 1970s, the actress affirmed female sexual liberation in a way that traditionalists viewed as shameless, but which others (including Simone de Beauvoir) viewed as righteous and emancipatory. And this ongoing civilisational shift can also be seen in Louis Malle’s film. On some levels it is a weak film, with an unconvincing romantic plot that fails to match up to the energy of its protagonist, but it is interesting in the way it helps us understand a changing world, full of contradictions. To give just one example: we can undoubtedly see Jill’s rebelliousness, but, in parallel, we also see in the character a surprising idea of femininity that merges woman and child, suggesting an inability and indecisiveness. Consequently, this stereotype emerges when Jill decides to quit a film mid-shoot and go to meet Fabio, who is staging a play in Italy. Rather than depicting this as a passionate gesture, what the film shows us is a need for direction, a stereotype of dependency: “I must see Fabio, I must talk to him. He will tell me what to do.”

Rosa Maria Martelo

Rosa Maria Martelo is an essayist, a researcher at Instituto de Literatura Comparada Margarida Losa and a full professor in the Faculty of Letters at Universidade do Porto. She holds a PhD in Portuguese Literature, with a focus on the study of Portuguese poetry and modern and contemporary poetics. In the field of Comparative Literature and Inter-art Studies, she studies the inter-media and trans-media relations between modern and contemporary poetry and visual arts and cinema. She has published O Cinema da Poesia (2012), Devagar, a Poesia (2022) and Matérias Difusas, Poderosas Coisas (2022). She co-organised the anthology Poemas com Cinema (2010) and organised the Antologia Dialogante de Poesia Portuguesa (2021).

Batalha Centro de Cinema

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