Film of the Day – Viva Maria! (Louis Malle, 1965)
Brigitte Bardot, Jeanne Moreau and a gatling gun*… What more could you possibly want from a film?
*You know; those funny, spinny proto-machine gun thingys from the westerns.
Viva Maria! is quite possibly the single grandest film that one could associate with the French New Wave and the closest that movement ever came to producing a true epic. It’s also a film that you could quite comfortably group in with the Zapata Western subgenre of the 60s and 70s – shoot-em-ups which spun yarns around the revolutions of the past in order to hold a mirror to the social upheaval of their present. This combination between Nouvelle Vague zip and political earnestness results in a rather peculiar and often delightful film that neither director nor iconic leads ever let sink too deeply into farce or aim too high for its own good.
We begin with the rather jaw-dropping premise of Brigitte Bardot as a runaway Irish revolutionary and bomb expert in Central America (she speaks French in a thick French accent throughout the entire film, of course), who happens across a travelling circus and convinces star attraction Jeanne Moreau to help her lie low and let her become her new dance partner. The pair rocket to a remarkable success after accidentally inventing the striptease – but old habits die hard and upon encountering an imprisoned freedom fighter, Bardot is soon teaching Moreau the ins and outs of her trade as our feisty heroines take up the cause on his behalf. Assembling a spirited army that includes their multi-talented circus companions, their revolution becomes as popular as their dance routines, but with a whole host of embittered menfolk out to get them, how long can they hold it together?
As I made clear from the beginning, the main selling point of Viva Maria! is the chance to see Bardot and Moreau onscreen together as dual leads, and they certainly do not disappoint. The idea of Brigitte Bardot being in the IRA is frankly absurd, but as in many other films, she delivers a note-perfect tough gal performance here with a smouldering presence that could match Clint Eastwood. The icily elegant Jeanne Moreau is on top-form too, and hats off to Louis Malle for turning in a gutsy, uniquely feminist action romp, and for keeping the visual gags coming thick and fast throughout.
The top-notch trailer below should give you a taste of what I’ve been going on about…