Growing up in Dallas in the mid-’50s, I remember when Brigitte Bardot came to town (on the big screen, at least) at the Esquire Theater in Roger Vadim’s …And God Created Woman. I never got to see the movie, though, since the Bishop of Dallas, bolstered by the Catholic Legion of Decency which had slapped a Condemned rating on the film, organized a formal demonstration against the naughty flick. Anyway, I was too young to have even bought a ticket, even if I could have sneaked past the moral watchdogs.
Almost 10 years later, Viva Maria! (starring Bardot and Jeanne Moreau) came to town. It was now the mid-’60s, and the barriers were starting to come down (at least at the movies). Nevertheless, the only place Viva Maria! played in Dallas was at a drive-in, and it was there that I finally got a look at lé Bardot! (It wasn’t until years later that I realized I had actually seen her nine years earlier in Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy, where, minus the notoriety, she was lost in a bit part. At that time, all I was interested in was swordplay and the Wooden Horse.)
I didn’t remember much about Viva Maria! except that Bardot was gorgeous, and her co-star (Jeanne Moreau) was easy on the eyes as well. I hadn’t seen François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim yet, though I would soon come to realize what a marvelous (as well as beautiful) actress Ms. Moreau was and is.
Back then, I didn’t know anything about Louis Malle, either, who directed Viva Maria! – he later became a favorite of mine. By 1965, the French filmmaker had already created a substantive reputation on the international scene, having “discovered” Moreau in Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers in 1958. In the ’70s and ’80s, Malle’s reputation would soar on the basis of films like Au Revoir, Les Enfants, Pretty Baby, Atlantic City and My Dinner with Andre.
Viva Maria! however, was a lark for the director – part musical, part Western and fully comical – highlighting two of the loveliest ladies of the day. Just released on Blu-ray, the movie is a visual treat (of course! it’s got Bardot and Moreau), but Malle makes equal use of gorgeous location scenery to enhance the thin, almost slapstick plot.
The film opens with a sequence of scenes at the turn of the century, showing the very young girl Maria being instructed in the use of bombs throughout Europe by her revolutionary father. Upon his death during a similar exercise somewhere in Central America, the grown-up Maria I (Bardot) hooks up with a traveling circus, where she comes under the tutelage of Maria II (Moreau), a chanteuse. Together, the Two Marias become a sensation on the musical stage, along the way accidentally inventing the art of the striptease.
When they cross paths with Flores (George Hamilton), a passionate young revolutionary, the Two Marias and the circus performers join his cause and are soon firing away with Gatling guns and hurling bombs at the Federals. Occasionally anti-clerical as well as anti-establishment, Viva Maria! is nonetheless more romp than diatribe. Malle left ’60s politics to Jean-Luc Godard, allowing his two stars (especially Bardot) revel in their unexpected comic talents.
A minor but nonetheless utterly delightful work by a major filmmaker, Viva Maria! looks beautiful on Blu-ray and includes an extra treat: a long-lost musical sequence that brings the movie to a close. Viva Bardot, Moreau and Malle!