French-born film director Roger Vadim (1928-2000) broke ground in the 1950s by pushing the boundaries of mainstream European art films to include more sensuality. Vadim became more renowned for the female actors he cast in his lushly photographed films than for his technical and artistic achievements, but he is credited with being one of the early instigators of the French New Wave.
Vadim's first film, And God Created Woman, released in 1955, caused a scandal. It featured Vadim's first wife, Brigitte Bardot, partially nude and sexually engaged with three different men. The film's subject matter, titillating use of sexuality, and the beauty of stars Bardot, Curt Jurgens, Christian Marquand, and Jean-Louis Trintignant assured the film's success internationally. And God Created Woman established the French "art film" as a 1950s euphemism for movies featuring nude scenes. After his divorce from Bardot, Vadim continued to employ Bardot in several films that never matched the notoriety of And God Created Woman, and he also made films prominently displaying other leading ladies, including second wife Annette Stroyberg, lover Catherine Deneuve, third wife Jane Fonda, Angie Dickinson, Jeanne Moreau, Susan Sarandon, and Rebecca DeMornay. While Vadim never again achieved the notoriety he received for his first film, some critics regarded him as a progenitor of the themes and styles used by such French New Wave directors as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. He was also critically commended for his lush photography, which he used to convey the beauty of the human form as well as natural, historic, and futuristic settings.
Son of a Diplomat
Vadim was born on January 26, 1928, in Paris. He was the son of Igor Plemiannikov, a Russian diplomat. His mother, Marie-Antoinette Plemiannikov, was a photographer. Vadim used his middle name professionally and dropped the surname Plemiannikov. He was nine years old when he witnessed his father's death from a heart attack, an event that reduced his family to poverty. During World War II, his mother took a job as manager of a hostel in the French Alps. Vadim wrote in his autobiography, Memoirs of the Devil, that the hostel was a haven for Jews and other exiles from France and Germany, and that he helped these fugitives get through the mountains into neutral Switzerland. The family returned to Paris after the Allied forces liberated the city.
In Paris, Vadim attended the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt, where he met film director Marc Allegret. Allegret introduced Vadim to filmmakers and writers including Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, and Andre Gide. Allegret also introduced him to sixteen-year-old ingenue Brigitte Bardot, who would appear in several of Allegret's films before attaining international stardom with Vadim. Bardot and Vadim married in 1952.
International Scandal and Success
After several years as a minor actor and unsuccessful screenwriter, Vadim secured financing for his own film, which would feature his young wife. In 1955, he released And God Created Woman, starring Bardot as a woman who marries in order to escape life in an orphanage. She does not love her new husband, however, and seduces his younger brother. The film became known for two scenes that spotlight the sensuality of Bardot. The first is the film's opening sequence in which Bardot lounges nude on the beach of Saint-Tropez, and the second is a barefoot dance she performs on a table top. Though she did not appear completely nude, Bardot's sensuality and her character's sexual freedom incited critical debates about art and pornography. The arguments created a tremendous amount of free publicity for the film, and it became an international success.
The film also brought charges that Vadim was a Svengali intent on exploiting the physical charms of his young bride. Vadim responded: "I did not invent Brigitte Bardot. I simply helped her to blossom, to learn her craft, while remaining true to herself. I was able to shield her from the ossification of ready-made rules which in films, as in other professions, often destroy the most original talents by bringing them into line." In fact, Vadim's direction emphasizes Bardot's natural attractiveness, rather than relying on ornate hairstyles, makeup, studio lighting, or fashionable apparel; this naturalism was later adopted by Godard and other French New Wave directors.
New Leading Ladies
Vadim made two more films with Bardot in the 1950s, No Sun in Venice (also known as When the Devil Drives) and The Night Heaven Fell. While both films managed to display Bardot in various stages of undress and included provocative sex scenes, neither achieved the success of their first film together. By the time he released The Night Heaven Fell, his marriage to Bardot had ended in divorce.
Vadim cast his second wife, Annette Stroyberg, in a modern adaptation of Choderlos de Laclo's 1782 novel Dangerous Liaisons, which also featured racy scenes. Vadim faced legal proceedings initiated by France's Society of Authors, who claimed he had taken undue liberties with the story. His defense attorney, future French President Francois Mitterrand, read letters written by de Laclo that warned future generations to beware censors. Vadim's victory in court and the scandal surrounding the film failed to garner it any public or critical success at the time. However, when it was reissued in 1987 to coincide with a remake directed by Stephen Frears, some critics conceded that Vadim's version merited a positive reconsideration.
Stroyberg also appeared in Vadim's adaptation of Sheridan LeFanu's classic vampire story Carmilla, which he entitled Blood and Roses. While lauding the film's photography by legendary cinematographer Claude Renoir, many critics and audiences were confused by the story. After Vadim and Stroyberg divorced, Vadim teamed up again with Bardot for Please Not Now! and Love on a Pillow. Their stories were similar and both were financially successful, although neither film was nearly as popular as And God Created Woman.
Vadim once again found himself the center of controversy after the release of Vice and Virtue. The 1963 film featured another of his paramours, Catherine Deneuve, and concerned a Parisian bordello during the Nazi occupation. Opening night audiences booed the film. According to Vadim, "The French were still very sensitive about the Nazi occupation and they didn't appreciate the liberties I had taken with history. Associations of former Resistance fighters tried to have the film banned. I had to wait two years for Vice and Virtue to open in art theaters in New York and San Francisco before I received good reviews."
Vadim fathered a child with Deneuve and the two were engaged to be married. His next wife, however, was American actress Jane Fonda. Fonda appeared in Vadim's adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's play La Ronde and his modern adaptation of Emile Zola's novel, La Curee, (also known as The Game is Over). Although the first film features a screenplay by Jean Anouilh, it suffered in comparison to Max Ophuls's 1951 classic rendering of the same material. In La Curee, Fonda's character, like Bardot's in And God Created Woman, marries a man to escape her immediate surroundings, in this case, a convent. Following her marriage of convenience, she finds love with her husband's son by his first marriage. Learning of the infidelity, her husband tries to drive her into madness.
Of the films Fonda and Vadim collaborated on, none achieved more notoriety than Barbarella. Based on the French science fiction comic strip by Jean-Claude Forest, it was adapted by Terry Southern, who also scripted Stanley Kubrick's classic antiwar film Dr. Strangelove. Barbarella eventually became a cult classic for its refusal to take itself seriously—and for the various sexual situations and states of undress in which Fonda's heroine finds herself. Fonda also starred in a sequence directed by Vadim for the film Spirits of the Dead, a triptych of Edgar Allen Poe stories, which also featured sequences directed by Federico Fellini and Louis Malle. Fonda and her brother Peter are cast as incestuous siblings. After divorcing Vadim, Fonda eventually denounced their film collaborations, saying they were exploitative.
Before his divorce from Fonda, Vadim had relocated to Hollywood. He remained there to direct Rock Hudson as a homicidal high school counselor in 1971's Pretty Maids All in a Row and reunited with Bardot for Ms. Don Juan (also known as If Don Juan Were a Woman), in which she plays the seductive counterpart to the infamous womanizer.
Vadim spent the remainder of the 1970s writing literary works, including two volumes of memoirs, Memoirs of the Devil and Bardot Deneuve Fonda. He returned to film in 1981 with Night Games, in which a young married woman who was the victim of a childhood rape attempts to conquer her sexual fears by engaging in sexual fantasizing. Vadim's final film was a remake of his first, And God Created Woman. Starring Rebecca De Mornay in the role created by Bardot, the 1988 version tells the story of a wrongly imprisoned female who promises her inheritance to a prison worker in exchange for a marriage that will expedite her parole. Once released, however, she focuses her energies on becoming a rock-and-roll star rather than a wife. While finding much to recommend the film, Roger Ebert wrote: "Is this a movie worth seeing? Sort of. You have to put the plot on hold, overlook the contrivances of the last half hour and find a way to admire how De Mornay plays the big scene, even while despising the scene itself. If you can do that, you'll find good work here—even by Vadim, who may have been as trapped by the plot as everyone else."
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