BRIGITTE BARDOT AND I
Voi che sapete...
Personally, I blame the government. When I was growing up I was force-fed National Health orange juice (delicious), National Health rose-hip syrup (delicious), and National Health cod liver oil (hmmm). The result was that I entered adolescence as a kind of Cherubino with spots. (Mature men of that time had an adjective for juveniles in this condition, but it is not one that can be used in front of wives or servants.) By the age of 15 my chief ambition was to visit the brothel in my town's Market Street. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) that august institution was closed down shortly after the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1959. My obsession had to be diverted to the Empire Cinema in the same street, which specialised in French films with an X Certificate.
So, having adopted a squeaky voice and a crouching position to claim half fare on the bus, then standing on tiptoe and speaking in a deep gruff voice to be allowed in the cinema, I became a devotee of Brigitte Bardot, the French language, and the liberation culture of the day. I watched La Vérité, Et Dieu Créa La Femme, and Le Repos du Guerrier (a quote, by the way, from the extremely anti-feminist Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra) with intense interest, and it is possible that anyone trying to analyse my character might detect some influences here.
Naturally as soon as I was able I made a beeline for Paris. I was now seventeen years old. I am reluctant to place on record everything that I learned there; let me specify just one thing: I was one of a new generation of English people who discovered that there is no need to get up early in the morning to start cooking the vegetables. Anyway, one day I bought a ham baguette for lunch, and I sat down on one of the lowest of the Luxembourg Steps to eat it. I went there because that is where D'Artagnan, a foolish seventeen-year-old, had challenged Athos, Porthos and Aramis to a duel one after the other. And who should come down the Steps but Brigitte Bardot! In the fl...fl...fl...in reality! I have never seen anything so graceful as the wonderful screen goddess BB gliding down the Luxembourg Steps. She was accompanied by a fussy retinue of little fat men.
The rest of this account has to be anticlimactic. For a start, BB (pronounced Bébé), was not the greatest of actresses technically. Her contemporary Jeanne Moreau was supreme: she could adopt any persona and make you believe it. Gina Lollobrigida (“La Lollo”) was even more beautiful (in my opinion) and more intelligent (she could do simultaneous translation in six languages), though as an actress her range was limited. The trouble was that BB was an artificial construct. Her extraordinary grace was her own: she was 5 ft 10 ins tall (1 metre 78) and she had trained as a ballet dancer. The reason why she switched careers was that she grew taller than potential male partners. But her name was not her own; and her dramatic blonde hair came out of a bottle. It was her director and first husband Roger Vadim who created her (claiming divinity, perhaps).
The liberation culture that she embodied had something of the bogus about it. As far has her films were concerned, her portrayal of a liberated young woman amounted to no more than Carmen's “Et si tu m'aimes, prends garde à toi”. The Liberation of 1944 was the most wonderful event in the lives of most French people when I made my first visit to Paris, though I was too young to understand that. However, during that visit I attended a performance of Fidelio at the Opéra. Florestan's aria “Meine Pflicht hab' ich getan” got a twenty minute standing ovation. Admittedly it was very beautifully sung; in fact it is one of my most treasured memories. But I did not know at the time that this aria had kept people alive in Nazi prison camps. In spite of all this, it became evident even to me that the louder French intellectuals shouted about liberation, the more likely they were to have been collaborators or worse.
Nevertheless, it has to be said that the French liberation culture that started off in the late 1940's had raised genuine questions about the status of women a whole generation before the Californian bra-burners made a big noise and thought they were being original.
Going back to Miss Bardot, it is desperately sad for a former admirer to have to suggest that in those areas of life that are specifically feminine, she knew failure after failure. Her sister, who was short and plump like most Parisiennes with mouse-brown hair (like BB's originally), raised four plus one children, stayed married to the same husband, and helped him run a pharmacy in a Paris suburb. BB had four short marriages, in all of which she seems to have been a trophy rather than a beloved helpmate. The last marriage was to a fascist; so much for Liberation! In between she had a baby (headline: “BB Mère”); the identity of the child's father does not seem to have emerged. Paris Match described in a harrowing article how the most famous woman in the world, alone and terrified, was left by herself to give birth in an anonymous flat while the paparazzi were clumping about over neighbouring rooftops trying to get pictures through the windows. Perhaps it is not surprising that she gave the baby to her sister.
In later life, her prominent and therefore photogenic features, and her lithe elegant body, coarsened and she retired in seclusion to St Tropez on the Mediterranean coast. Just as the clothes that she wore were copied by women everywhere, everybody wanted to visit St Tropez, so it soon became known as “St Trop” (Saint Excess). The poor lady herself never overcame the misjudgement of marrying a fascist, and her occasional public activities made her the subject of ridicule. She became a vegan and a keen defendant of animal rights. A highly publicised visit to Greenland to persuade the Inuit to eat fresh vegetables provoked much hilarity. Then followed the most ridiculous story of all. Her neighbour's male donkey jumped over the boundary fence and rogered her own donkey. So she had her neighbour's donkey castrated (so much for animal rights). The ensuing lawsuit kept the story in the French papers for weeks. She was called “La Châtreuse de l'Âne” (Donkey Doctoress?), a punning reference to Stendhal's novel “La Chartreuse de Parme”.
Nevertheless, I owe Brigitte Bardot some beautiful memories.