Brigitte Bardot is nearly 90 but she’s still baring her claws today

The child-woman image of Brigitte Bardot, capering on a beach, set the world on fire in the post-war period. Today, though, in the light of the MeToo movement, how does the legacy of the legendary sex kitten stack up?

Bardot herself became disenchanted with the bosom business and her sex-goddess blondeness. Half a century ago, she turned her back on her cinema career to become an animal activist, donating her fortune to save victims of cruelty.

But Bardot, known in France by her initials BB (pronounced bébé, or baby) has never been forgotten. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1953, the Press concurred: ‘She eclipsed everyone.’

There were riots everywhere she went – when visiting Picasso, in 1956, or in Venice, in 1958, when 300 cameramen sank in their boat. A plane traced her initials in the sky. Bardot’s allure was to be baby-faced, fresh – and erotically provocative.

She emerged on the international stage in the Fifties, at the same time as Nabokov’s Lolita, the bestselling novel about a nymphet.

Sexy: Brigitte became a sex symbol after starring in And God Created Woman, where she played a sexually liberated young woman that saw her become a sex symbol

Bardot herself became disenchanted with the bosom business and her sex-goddess blondeness

Bardot herself became disenchanted with the bosom business and her sex-goddess blondeness

Today, in the light of the MeToo movement, how does the legacy of the legendary sex kitten stack up?

Today, in the light of the MeToo movement, how does the legacy of the legendary sex kitten stack up?

Career: Brigitte Bardot starred in 47 films including the classic And God Created Woman during her acting career, before she quit the movie industry in 1973

Career: Brigitte Bardot starred in 47 films including the classic And God Created Woman during her acting career, before she quit the movie industry in 1973

No one had ever seen anyone like Bardot in public – the feminine curves, the windswept appearance, the girlish ponytail or loosely-assembled tumble of blonde hair, the cheap shirt tied under her bust.

Feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir said Bardot evinced ‘the gravity of childhood’ alongside an ‘unchaste naivete’ – a dangerous compound. John Lennon had a poster of her on his bedroom ceiling.

In 1957, priests in New York told people not to view Bardot’s films. The Vatican, which six years later accused Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton of ‘erotic vagrancy’, condemned Bardot as ‘evil’.

Bardot’s youth and energy, on display in the Mediterranean sunshine, were regarded as shameless, depraved. Her flesh was to be identified with sin.

The fact is, Bardot’s image, in magazines and on the screen, brought in more revenue for France than the export sales of Renault cars. She was the most famous French person next to General de Gaulle, though maybe not Inspector Clouseau. Andy Warhol said Bardot was ‘one of the first women to be really modern.’ And so she was.

If you go back to the world before Bardot, who, unbelievably, will be 90 in September, women were coiled up in their clothes. In fashion photography, they were in tailored jackets, girdles, evening gowns. Suddenly, there Bardot was, in her most notorious film, And God Created Woman, shot in St Tropez in 1956, wearing nothing but a casually-draped beach towel.

Bardot invented nakedness. Indeed, the veteran French actor Jean Gabin referred to her as ‘this thing that goes around naked’.

She seldom wore jewellery. She was not interested in diamonds, or perfume. She wore ballet pumps or went barefoot.

People went to see her nearly 50 films to see her in a leopard-skin bikini. Bardot displayed her midriff and belly button, which the American Hays Code, which applied rigid moral scrutiny to films, tried to suppress. In her films, Bardot is a treat in baggy pyjamas, jeans, straw hats and duffel coats.

She’s gorgeous in striped Breton tops, swirling gingham skirts and black leotards. Her frocks have plunging necklines.

Stardom: Brigitte shot to fame and became an international sex symbol after playing a sexually liberated young woman in the 1956 film And God Created Woman

Stardom: Brigitte shot to fame and became an international sex symbol after playing a sexually liberated young woman in the 1956 film And God Created Woman

Stunning: The star was just 15 when she graced the cover of Elle magazine in 1950, which launched her acting career, and starred in 47 films before her retirement

Stunning: The star was just 15 when she graced the cover of Elle magazine in 1950, which launched her acting career, and starred in 47 films before her retirement

All change: She quit the movie industry in 1973 and now runs an animal sanctuary in the French Riviera resort of St Tropez (pictured in 2007)

All change: She quit the movie industry in 1973 and now runs an animal sanctuary in the French Riviera resort of St Tropez (pictured in 2007) 

Bardot was made for negligently undone buttons, or to get into fights so her clothes can be torn. She bathes in rivers, Hoovers in the buff, is saucily aware of voyeurs as she parades nude past open windows in her flat.

‘If you cut one scene,’ declared Roger Vadim, Bardot’s director and first husband, ‘you have to cut them all. It’s the whole of Brigitte you need to censor.’

Bardot existed chiefly as a photographic model, and in her films she is on exhibition.

In And God Created Woman, for example, she is posed in silhouette, slouching against kitchen tables, doorways and olive trees. Bardot dances and capers – the better for the audience to admire her figure. She is frequently on the move. Vadim was criticised in some quarters for ‘complacently exposing the body of his wife’.

Not that Bardot seemed to mind.

‘Never was the experience of shooting a film so wonderful,’ she said. ‘I was not acting. I was just living.’ And living the life she was acting, it would seem.

Bardot had an affair with co-star, Jean-Louis Trintignant. Not that we need feel too sorrowful for Vadim, who after divorcing Bardot went on to have relationships with Catherine Deneuve and Jane Fonda.

It’s as a fashion icon, an object, completely inaccessible to ordinary mortals, that Bardot remains important. In 1959, for example, she was the inspiration for the Barbie doll, also the comic strip character of Barbarella, played in the film adaptation by Jane Fonda. Britney Spears might be a contemporary equivalent, or Claudia Schiffer and Kate Moss. But as regards her own time, Bardot was unique because she was suddenly an antidote to the years of German Occupation, which is why she said with such feeling: ‘I live as if I were going to die at any moment.’

More recently, however, Bardot looked back at the Fifties more modestly. ‘I had but one merit. That of arriving, and thus being there, at the right time,’ with World War II at last behind everybody and the Sexual Revolution up ahead.

Thinking about her work today, in the politically correct 21st Century, nevertheless it is possible to see something queasy going on – Bardot was often cast as unruly daughters of bewildered, angry fathers; or else she’s the squeeze of much older partners: all these patriarchal authority figures, there to suggest women need, are nothing without, male guides, male protectors. In many films, Bardot even sleeps with men she dislikes.

Marriages: She has had four husbands, marrying far-right political aide Bernard d'Ormale in 1992, who she is still with today

Marriages: She has had four husbands, marrying far-right political aide Bernard d’Ormale in 1992, who she is still with today

Couple: The actress-turned-animal rights activist has been married to far-right political aide Bernard d'Ormale since 1992 (pictured together in 1994)

Couple: The actress-turned-animal rights activist has been married to far-right political aide Bernard d’Ormale since 1992 (pictured together in 1994)

Controversy: Brigitte has become a controversial figure in recent years and has been fined six times for 'inciting racial hatred' with her writings about animal abuse (pictured in 2007)

Controversy: Brigitte has become a controversial figure in recent years and has been fined six times for ‘inciting racial hatred’ with her writings about animal abuse (pictured in 2007)

The innuendo implies that, toying with paramours, Bardot can’t complain when men go wild, slapping her around. She’s the one doing the inflaming, so is often punished by being killed in a car crash in the final reel. No wonder by 1973 she’d had enough.

The entertainment industry was, Bardot concluded, ‘ridiculous’.

She flatly refused invitations to Hollywood. Despite all that was claimed about Bardot’s carefree image, behind the scenes she didn’t seem carefree.

She was born into a rather stiff and formal Parisian family, her father the owner of factories. He caned his daughter severely if she dropped crockery. There was a large apartment in the city, a weekend house in the country, a summer house in St Tropez. Bardot attended dance classes, which contributed to her posture, her bounce, her pertness. Unlike Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe, she never had weight problems.

By 1948, Bardot was modelling hats for Elle. Aged 15, she was on their cover. Pouting and looking mischievous, she was photographed by Paris-Match soon afterwards.

How exploitative, even paedophilic, was all this?

Aged 17, she met Roger Vadim. ‘He looked at me, scared me, attracted me. I didn’t know where I was anymore.’ To overcome parental objections about the liaison, Bardot attempted suicide, by sticking her head in the oven.

There were to be four marriages. She wed her second husband, the actor Jacques Charrier, in 1959, only because she was pregnant with their son Nicolas.

Bardot was not maternal – calling her unborn baby a ‘cancerous tumour’. She would have preferred an abortion but the prospect was too scandalous, let alone illegal. ‘I want there to be no hypocrisy, no nonsense about love,’ she said harshly, and confessed that immediately after giving birth: ‘I started screaming, begging them to take him away from me. I never wanted to see him again.’

Nicolas was raised by Charrier’s family. Growing up, he led a life that Bardot had no idea about. In 1984, when he married a Norwegian supermodel, his mother wasn’t invited to the wedding. They had no contact until 1996 when he took her to court for violation of privacy over what she had written about him in a book. Bardot was ordered to pay him damages. Since then, mother and son have reconciled. Many lovers came and went – including singer-songwriter Sacha Distel and actor Warren Beatty.

‘I have always looked for passion,’ Bardot explained. ‘That’s why I was often unfaithful. When the passion was coming to an end, I was packing my suitcase.’

Serge Gainsbourg wrote the sexually explicit song Je T’aime Moi Non Plus (I Love You – Me Not Anymore) after his fling with Bardot.

A co-star who failed to find favour, even briefly, with Bardot was Sean Connery. ‘I never succumbed to his charm,’ she said. Or, possibly, it was his toupee.

Out and about: Brigitte Bardot was seen making a rare public appearance as she went for a drive in the south of France

Out and about: Brigitte Bardot was seen making a rare public appearance as she went for a drive in the south of France

Sex symbol: She graced the cover of Elle magazine as the age of 15 before she was launched to fame after starring in the 1956 film And God Created Woman

Sex symbol: She graced the cover of Elle magazine as the age of 15 before she was launched to fame after starring in the 1956 film And God Created Woman

Romance: Brigitte (pictured on the set of La Bride sur le Cou) married filmmaker Roger Vadim in 1952 but they divorced in 1957, however went on to work together in The Night Heaven Fell

Romance: Brigitte (pictured on the set of La Bride sur le Cou) married filmmaker Roger Vadim in 1952 but they divorced in 1957, however went on to work together in The Night Heaven Fell

Bardot’s third marriage was to a German ball bearings heir and bobsleigh enthusiast, who killed himself in 2011. He had attracted her attention by bombarding the house from a helicopter with rose petals. ‘I gave my youth and beauty to men,’ she declared. ‘I am now giving my wisdom and experience to animals.’

Bardot surrounded herself with 220 cats, 30 dogs, 250 goats, and innumerable rabbits and donkeys. She gave over her home in north-central France to be an animal sanctuary – named the Brigitte Bardot Foundation. She campaigned against seal culling in Canada, dolphin culling in the Faroes, and the fate of polar bears in Alaska.

Pronouncing from her 14-bedroom villa near Cannes, Bardot was, and remains, appalled by the ritual slaughter of sheep – Islamic halal – for which she has been accused of racism: ‘My country, France, my homeland, is again invaded by an overpopulation of foreigners, especially Muslims.’

Bardot’s comments and insults have often landed her in court, especially as she insists she’s ‘fed up with being under the thumb of this population, which is destroying us, destroying our country and imposing its habits’.

Bardot’s fourth husband was a former adviser to France’s far-Right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. I suppose you could laugh off her outspokenness – like a batty old granny. Bardot isn’t incredibly fond of gays (‘fairground freaks’) and she accuses hunters with their guns of being drunkards and primitives.

Rare for a star, she is not interested in cosmetic surgery, saying: ‘When I’m in front of the camera, I’m simply myself.’ Why pretend to be young when you are not?

The French have BB, but we British had Barbara Windsor, who was sustained by a comic spirit, and sent herself up.

Bardot would never be capable of such self-mockery. When, in her films, she gazes provocatively at the camera, it is an unironic challenge; the sexual play is real, not Carry On bawdy. In 1956, at a Royal Command Performance, awaiting Queen Elizabeth’s handshake, Bardot stood in the line-up next to the actor Ian Carmichael.

Photos of the event show Princess Margaret loitering in the distance, looking at Bardot. The princess frowns, her glowering expression rather summing up what a certain sort of puritanical English person thought about a louche foreigner, who probably ate garlic, snails, and frogs’ legs.

Indeed, as powerfully fanciable as Bardot evidently was in her prime, there’s still something very different about Barbara Windsor’s bra flying off and hitting Kenneth Williams full in the face, or about Hattie Jacques giving Frankie Howerd a bed-bath. The best that Brigitte Bardot inspired was lust.

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