Brigitte Bardot and the contradictions of stardom

The French star is known for her sex-kitten persona - but why did the world love to hate her?

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“Brigitte Bardot seems available to everyone,” Simone de Beauvoir mused in 1959, “and yet, she is intimidating.”  Perhaps nobody has better summed up the fury and idolatry surrounds Bardot, the sultry-faced, wild-haired French beauty, whose mythic pull has been long debated since she shot to fame as the sensual Juliette in And God Created Woman. These days, Bardot can be find be found doing literally anything except acting – she retired in 1973, and is now known for either her campaigning for animal rights, the style of “Bardot” tops that she popularized, or, more worryingly, being continuously fined for “inciting racial hatred.” 

The film critic Richard Dyer has explained his theory as to why and how film stars emerge, suggesting that they have to embody some kind of contradiction, and constantly be tugged in two directions, to be desirable – they need to be both “ordinary and extraordinary.” By looking at both the private and the on-screen, it soon becomes clear why Bardot was perhaps the biggest cultural export France had to offer in the mid-twentieth century.

When it comes to stardom and speculation, Brigitte Bardot (hereby referred to by her famous acronym, BB) is surely France’s most famous actress, and many say that this is down to her apparent total naturality on and off screen. Many discussions surrounding the actress’s roles don’t make it clear whether they are referring to BB or the character in the film, which is extremely telling; the two often merge to become one personality, one face, one thing to be simultaneously fetishised, her films almost taking on an à clef quality. Bardot appealed to the French palate, as many American films at the time – Westerns, gangster movies, spy thrillers – were seen as distasteful to the French, who increasingly opted to favour their own films rather than Hollywood’s. BB, with her enigmatic gaze and sex-kitten characteristics, came at just the right time as a symbol of anti-Puritanism and unbridled sexuality – and the response was nothing but seismic. With a new brand of sophisticated smut, BB helped the French box office soar in the 1950’s, perfectly reinforcing Dyer’s theory that the star is a commodity, a tool for economic prosperity.

More than this, though, BB embodied the contradictions, as explored by Dyer, that emerged with idolatry and stardom. Simone de Beauvoir examined this in her essay Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome, where she says that “Brigitte Bardot was disliked in her own country.”  Yes, disliked – yet also the first official face of Marianne, representing her entire country from 1969 to 1978. This alone exposes the entire contradiction that surrounds the actress. BB’s influence – the fact that And God Created Woman was reviled in a sort of cannot-look-away fascination in France, yet welcomed by Americans cultivating their own burgeoning industry of vanity, vulgarity and commercialism – reflects in itself the established cultural postwar differences between the two nations. De Beauvoir points out that “BB is a lost, pathetic child who needs a guide and protector. This cliché has proved its worth. It flatters masculine vanity; it reassures mature and maturing women.”  This is yet another disunion in BB’s ascribed public personality, which is the driving force of And God Created Woman; that BB (or Juliette – it is near-impossible to separate the two) has an assertively penetrative gaze and does what she wants, despite her recurrent depiction as a pathetic child.

BB’s national and international fame erupted after the controversial And God Created Woman was released because, as mentioned before, her perceived naturality was and still is fascinating for an audience. BB famously stated that “the Juliette in And God Created Woman is exactly me. When I’m in front of the camera, I’m simply myself.”  And so, with the film, the audience feels like they are getting some sort of sneak preview into her life: her sexual preferences, her likes, her dislikes. When she lies down, brazenly naked, in front of Curd Jürgens – twenty years her senior – it tinges the film with voyeuristic excitement and suggests that BB herself is a total minx. What would have bolstered the excitement around her performance was that it was entirely new: this type of risqué film helped establish the French as, well, somewhat naughty, showing off what was not permitted in Hollywood. Juliette’s wild hair is that of a messy waif, and she prefers to act on impulse; she makes love when she wants, dances when she wants, is drawn to animals, acts out childishly. Throughout the film, Juliette reveals very little about her personality – one could almost describe her as laconic –  which allows the audience to ascribe meaning onto her. By baring her flesh, her body seems to speak for itself seeming as her personality does not. Dyer, in Stars, states that charisma is a salient personality trait that leads to idolatry; Juliette is oddly heroic through her confident rudeness to authority figures and don’t-give-a-damn attitude.

Yet another ironic contradiction of Juliette in And God Created Woman, though, is how she is apparently so transgressive thanks to her insolence, wantonness and outspokenness, yet her entire attractiveness is utterly based on traditional feminine myths. BB’s entire marketability relied on a deeply penetrative and possessive male gaze – she personifies what Laura Mulvey coined as to-be-looked-at-ness, which is only reinforced by Vadim’s camera numerous times in the film, but particularly through pans of Juliette’s body as she dances the mambo, where the camera follows her around the room like an aroused voyeur, panning up and down her bare legs and zooming in on her face which almost appear post-coital; sweaty, dishevelled, wild. Numerous shots featuring mirrors in And God Created Woman frame Juliette like she is a photograph or painting waiting to be consumed by an audience.

The celebrity is not a new concept; you can look as far back to athletes in Ancient Greece to find people who were showered with gifts and praise. Then emerged the cult of personality; painters and writers relied on their reputation in the eighteenth century in order to cement their desired idolatry and success. Stardom is unique to the notion of mere fame, however. It cultivates an obsession with the inner, the secret; it engenders voyeurism, the desire to have access to some inner unknown space that the star offers glimpses in to. The desire to know Brigitte Bardot, and to explain the how and the why is what fuelled her ascension. Her short-lived career reflected a period where French cinema enjoyed international fame. And God Created Woman’s director, Roger Vadim, openly admitted to making the film in order to make his wife a star, and his deployment of contradictory character traits later makes her to this day a point of conversation among fans and academics alike.

Words by Steph Green

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