Does the magical name "Bardot" mean anything to today's youth? Does it have the cache that its equivalent, "Valentino" has (or had; I asked my teenage son if he had ever heard of either, and all I got was a blank stare). At one time, even when I was a boy in the 1970s, the words "Brigitte Bardot" instantly conveyed an almost cosmic, mystical sexual allure -- which is highly amusing to me today because I don't think I ever even saw a Bardot film until I was in college. For decades, her name had been synonymous with a kind of foreign, unbridled sex appeal: the ultimate pouty "sex kitten" of the 1950s and 1960s (leaving other posers to that title, such as Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret, in the dust). So I was quite curious to see SKD's "remastered edition" of Bardot's second film appearance, 1952's Manina la Fille Sans Voile, or as it was known when released in the U. S., The Girl in the Bikini. Would I be able to see today what drove international audiences insane with desire over fifty years ago?
Part comedy, part adventure, and part romance, The Girl in the Bikini is an amiable, frothy little commercial piece that tells the story of Gerard (Jean-Francois Calve), a French law student who dreams of finding sunken treasure after being captivated by stories of a famous Phoenician treasure lost at sea off the coast of Corsica. Having vacationed there five years earlier, Gerard had found an amphora (vase) off the waters of Lavezzi, and has dreamed of returning to find the millions of francs worth of gold coins he believes are still there. While there, Gerard had also met a beautiful, captivating young 13-year-old girl named Manina, the lighthouse keeper's daughter.
During Gerard's break, he convinces his fellow students to fund his trip back to Lavezzi, in exchange for a share of the treasure he's sure he will find. Arriving in Tangiers, Gerard has an idea to hook up with a cigarette smuggler who has a boat, promising half the gold as payment for passage. Set up with Franchucha (Espanita Cortez), a sultry singer in a rowdy Tangiers bar, Gerard comes into contact with Erik (Howard Vernon) when they're both locked up in prison for fighting at the bar. Gerard convinces the world-weary, cynical smuggler Erik of his scheme, and they set off in Erik's boat, the Surraya, for Corsica.
Once there, Gerard naturally runs into Manina (Brigitte Bardot) again, whom the five years have been extremely kind to: she's now an 18-year-old knockout. Gerard, instantly in love with her, pursues the shy, kind, open girl, and convinces her that he will take her away from the lonely island she lives on, once he finds the gold he is seeking. But Erik, who immediately senses the trouble that Manina represents, plots to get either the gold, or her, for himself.
Considered scandalous when it premiered, The Girl in the Bikini was the subject of a lawsuit initiated by Bardot's father, who, after seeing the film, felt it compromised the honor of his daughter (evidently, that was grounds for a lawsuit back then in France). Viewed by the judge, the film was allowed to run when it was determined that Bardot's brief nudity didn't sully her name. Viewed today, and considering the rough nature of the print for this DVD, it's impossible to determine if there were more nude scenes in the film (as it stands, there's only one brief, barely topless shot that last a second or two here). Now that we have that out of the way, how's the film, and how's Bardot?
The Girl in the Bikini is certainly easy to take today, a light little souffle that mixes in some early funny scenes involving Calve's efforts to mount his adventure. Waiting for Bardot to show up (which takes a while), we have the beautiful, alluring Cortez singing a funny, ironic song to Gerard about men naive enough to love her, as well as a pretty good comedic bar fight scene (I like how the cops knock everybody out). When Gerard and Erik leave Tangiers, the film switches to travelogue mode, as we see some beautiful shots of the Mediterranean coast. Once in Lavezzi, the film switches modes again into adventure (the arresting diving sequences) and mythical romance (the eternal love triangle, shot in a simple, almost primitive manner more reminiscent of silent film). Directed by the famed, eccentric French director Willy Rozier, The Girl in the Bikini constantly tickles our fancy by staying light, while it switches effortlessly back and forth in tone and direction.
Now for Bardot. What can you say about her that hasn't already been written by hundreds of other writers? I can say that having not seen very many of her early films (And God Created Woman was always a particular favorite in college), it's immediately apparent that she does have that indefinable "something" that no studio chief can manufacture, and which defies easy description. In a world routinely obsessed with fame and celebrities (and what celebrities of dubious appeal we're stuck with now, eh?), it's hard to understand the kind of media frenzy that Bardot created during her reign as the world's foremost sex symbol. The fact that she wore a revealing bikini here was enough for the Vatican to forcefully try and get the film censored, speaks to the kind of relatively innocent media world Bardot entered - and helped alter. She is undeniably sexy and alluring here in The Girl in the Bikini. Wearing a barely there bikini, there's an innocent, yet carnal appeal to her singularly attractive eyes and mouth, that still translates into a "wow" factor over fifty years later. Her acting - instinctive, unschooled - is at this point in her career, beside the point. She's a visceral force of nature, and you can't take your eyes off her when she's on screen. There's no need for any other criteria when you define a movie star and sex symbol, and fifty years later, Bardot's appearance in The Girl in the Bikini still has the ability to make viewers go, "Who is that girl?"
It may say "remastered edition" on the box, but this black and white print of The Girl in the Bikini is pretty poor. Contrasty and scratched, it barely rates a "Fair," and that's a shame, because director Rozier, an early innovator in underwater photography, stages some pretty cool (for the time) underwater sequences. And by the way, the DVD box says this is in "widescreen," which is a pretty neat trick for a French film from 1952. The Girl in the Bikini is correctly presented full frame for this DVD transfer.
The audio options for The Girl in the Bikini include a Dolby 2.0 French stereo track, a Spanish 2.0 stereo track, and a Spanish 5.1 stereo track. But lets be clear; the original source materials sound terrible here. There are plenty of in-and-out warbles and "harrumps" (as we called them back in school) on the soundtrack, along with numerous pops and snaps. English and Spanish subtitles are also included, but my high school French tells me they may not be the most accurate (for instance, "merde" is translated as "hell").
There's a brief animated photo gallery of production stills for The Girl in the Bikini.
Taken on its own, The Girl in the Bikini is an agreeable time-passer which is as easily forgotten as it was enjoyed. As an introduction to true movie icon Brigitte Bardot, it's definitely worth your while to see and experience the kind of real sex symbol that movie fans hopefully still dream about. I recommend The Girl in the Bikini.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.