Thursday, March 01, 2007

Book Report: "Bardot Deneuve Fonda" by Roger Vadim

There is only one reason to not envy Roger Vadim and that is that he’s dead. Aside from that...

For filmophiles, Bardot, Deneuve, Fondaoffers intimate portraits of a trio of great mid-century actresses.

For Europhiles, it offers a panoramic view of “La Dolce Vita” on the Old Continent after World War II. A great time for those who survived the conflict in one piece.

A couple of years ago the scribe read “The Good, the Bad, and the Dolce Vita,” by blacklisted actor Mickey Knox. Although enjoyable, Knox was entering the universe in question by the back door and could not write worth a lick.

Vadim’s a different case altogether. His father was the son of a Russian diplomat chased from the mother country by Bolsheviks: “Like all children of Russian diplomats, he spoke French fluently. After graduating in political science, he took the civil service examination and passed with flying colors. Named consul at the age of twenty-eight, he married a French woman, Marie-Antoinette Ardilouze. His first post was the consulate in Alexandria, Egypt.”

You get the idea.

Those hip to European culture know the best way to rebel in life is to have an aristocratic background and that is what Vadim did, throwing his lot in with the long-hairs (of his day anyway), opting for a life in film, and developing a great reputation as seducer of (younger) ladies.

His first was Brigitte Bardot whom he met on a Parisian bus when she was just 15-years-old. He spent the next few years dodging her father “Pilou,” whom was under the impression his daughter was still a virgin, when Vadim had settled that question well before they married once Brigitte turned 18.

Vadim/Bardot made a unique team, he a writer of characters for her, she the muse who played them out before the cameras. Neither could have made it without the other and it is their tale which is most interesting of the three largely because neither is famous yet, and we get to see how things evolved for them professionally.

Bardot wanted to be a prima ballerina but ended up in film, it would seem, largely because of her lack of interest in it (aspiring actresses take heed).

And although Vadim’s novel approach to film making and storytelling were crucial to harnessing Bardot’s raw rebelliousness, her raw rebelliousness was crucial to his film making/storytelling.

She had a natural and casual attitude about the world around her, most unimpressed by status and blessed with a wicked tongue. Keira Knightley’s recent turn in “Pride and Prejudice” comes to mind.

Early on (page 50), Vadim is making the rounds of haute Paris with his sexy young charge/lover/business partner. One such stop is at a famous mansion on 72 rue de Varenne, where all manner of luminaries are gathered including a young senator from the United States, John F. Kennedy.

Again, you get the idea.

Here’s Vadim: “Among the guests was a woman whose amorous adventures had been the talk of Paris for more than thirty years. Simone Beiau, now a theater director, had been a great courtesan. Now over fifty, she had become subdued, but she remained notorious for her immoderate language. She decided to get a laugh by attacking Brigitte.

‘Are you a virgin?’ she asked her point-blank. She expected to upset the young girl and make her blush.

But without becoming flustered, Brigitte replied, ‘No, madam. Are you’?”

(And whatever happened to courtesans, anyway?)

His rendering of Bardot is that of an unstable girl desperately in love with the idea of love, but not so good at the real thing and certainly not monogamous (understandably difficult for her to achieve).

The pair’s big break came with Vadim penning and lensing (that’s Hollywood “Variety” talk for writing and directing) “And God Created Woman,” with Bardot as his lead, Julietta.

She appears naked, sort of, by today’s standards, but more than that comes across as a girl who enjoys sex; a posture most upsetting to the crumbling, but still deeply Catholic-bourgeois, order in France. So much so, the government tried to stop the film from screening [this is before YouTube kiddies]. The case went to court. Vadim and producer Raoul Levy prevailed thanks to their attorney - Francois Mitterand, future president of France.

You get the idea.

Here’s an exchange between Bardot and none other than Winston Churchill, who ran into each other, per chance, in a hotel during the shooting of “And God Created Woman”:

“‘When I was eight years old and heard you on the radio, you frightened me,' said Brigitte, ‘But now you seem rather cute, considering you’re a legend.’

‘Cute’ was not a word people normally used to describe Churchill to his face! The great orator remained speechless.

‘What are you doing in Nice?’ Brigitte asked, in order to fill the silence.

‘Painting,’ replied Churchill. ‘You are an actress, and I am a painter. We have art in common.’

‘My father bought one of your landscapes,’ said Brigitte.

‘I don’t sell my paintings.’

‘Well, then your friends do. The painting my father bought has a hill, a parasol pine in the foreground and the sea in the background. Do you remember it?’

‘And on the right a broom bush in flower?’

‘Yes. Do you like to paint?’

‘I love painting. But I shall never go down in history with Cézanne.’

‘You know, my films are not nearly as good as your paintings. And I never won a war.’

‘That is no great loss,’ Churchill concluded.”

A couple of days later, old Winny tried to get Brigitte to come by for dinner!

As hinted above, Bardot turns out to be more than a little unfaithful to Vadim, who moves on to marry a Danish women named Annette, whom he puts in a movie and loses to her desires for fame and fortune, film style.

Then he hooks up with Catherine Deneuve. By now Vadim is a famous MAN OF FILM and 17- year-old hotties with stardust in their eyes come his way regularly, so there’s less intrigue than with Bardot, a more ingenuous romance in the springtime of their loving.

He is thirty-two, at this point, and after a few comings and goings, sets up his seduction of C. “But age didn’t make a difference,” he wrote, “Neither did experience, for women know many things without needing to learn them.”

Now, that may not sound like overheated and steamy prose to you, but the scribe has vivid enough imagination to plug-in a young Catherine Deneuve – the one wearing the Chanel outfit in Polansky’s “Repulsion” – for things to get hot and steamy without any verbal assistance whatsoever.

Deneuve is beautiful, but she is stern, and cool and rather domestic for a flaming faux blonde and French siren. As such, Vadim’s continuing adventures as a race car driver for Ferrari, as a friend of eccentric aristocrats, and denizen of exciting Latin countries take over at this juncture in this autobiography.

After C. dumps Vadim, he moves on to an up-and-coming Jane Fonda, who enters at about age 17. Again, there are many reasons to envy and despise Roger Vadim, were he not gone from us.

Their idyllic life on a farm somewhere near Versailles is enough to depress any American middle-classer and one has to wonder why Fonda, Hollywood royalty, with a film or two under her belt, would want to give up this paradise to get half-naked, smooch with men she doesn’t know, and do press junkets for films.

The rendering of Fonda is one of a conflicted little girl trying many ways to grow up. The contrast between the two French women, hurtling at warp speed into sex and serious life, and the American girl, hung up on “finding herself,” is rather revealing.

Jane, casting about in the lap of luxury and under the entire world’s gaze, finds herself as an opponent to the Vietnam War, and it’s only a matter of time before Vadim moves onto his fifth wife and first non-actress.

It’s surprising Fonda found no room in her life for Vadim following her transformation. It was he who introduced her to another understanding of the United States beyond her own apple-pie version, and Vadim himself seemed to walk into historical situations by happenstance.

Just before the outbreak of the May ‘68 rebellion in Paris, he finds himself chosen by a dissident faction of the film industry’s workers and technicians union to lead them. He wins the election, the riots break out, and Vadim finds himself a front-and-center-protagonist in the dramatic events that follow.

A brilliant intellectual (is there another kind?), his thoughts on these moments and others are worth the read even if you’re in it just for the cheesecake.

When Fonda tells him she thinks, “The government will be overthrown,” he tells her, “I’m convinced of the contrary. The Communists have mobilized their troops and joined the students’ camp in order to take control of the situation and nip the movement in the bud. They can’t accept a revolution that outflanks them on the left. The Communist Party will not admit it, but it is the government’s potential ally.”

Which is what came to pass.

“Few people made the same political calculation as I did. Even the president of the Republic, General de Gaulle, believing his government had lost the battle, left Paris secretly by helicopter to get the support of the French occupation army in Germany.”

And why should he be humble, bumble?

Vadim’s life with Jane eventually jumped from France to Malibu, California where, despite their fading romance, he has a great time anyway hanging out with Jack Nicholson, or Andy Warhol, or Larry Hagman...

...but you get the idea.

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