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Roger Vadim appears to have employed something of a patchwork approach when putting ... And God Created Woman together. Parts of the film (those involving the Tardieu family at home and at work, the location shoots in and around St. Tropez, etc) could almost pass for Italian neo-realism while Juliette and some of the predicaments that she finds herself in wouldn't be that out of place in a gritty British kitchen sink drama. Conversely, other parts (notably the scenes involving Curd Jurgens and his upper-crust pals) play like they belong in a Hollywood high-society melodrama. Also present are nods in the direction of the then newly emerging phenomenon of youth culture (the local dance hall, the tough kids who populate the harbour-front bar, Juliette's obsession with music) and contemporary musicals (Juliette's dance scene with a mambo band). Also present is some snappy dialogue (Juliette's surreally humorous quips and her strangely articulated-but-astute homespun philosophy) which is employed to give parts of the film a noticeably hip vibe.
For a debut feature, there's not much wrong with ... And God Created Woman on a technical level. Indeed, Vadim presents a fair number of quite impressively composed shots which make good use of the 2.35:1 frame and the film is reasonably well edited and paced. Over the years great play has been made of the fact that Bardot was Vadim's wife and critics have wondered just how much their real life relationship might have influenced the way that Vadim wrote Bardot's character and shot her scenes. It's impossible to comment with any certainty. The feminist film theorists who argue that movie cameras routinely capture visuals that are primarily attuned to the male gaze while simultaneously playing a technical role in the objectification of the female characters that their lenses focus on might well find plenty to write about this film. But it can't be denied that Bardot was a real beauty who possessed both a natural sex appeal and a commanding screen presence, so maybe Vadim's presentation of Bardot as Juliette isn't quite as wilfully contrived or as outrageous as film historians would have us believe.
A number of clichés and stereotypes can be found here and the film sports some confused and, one would hope, outdated sexual politics. Juliette appears to have been a perpetual victim of the type of men who have no qualms about leading on and using 'bad' girls for brief and non-committal fun until a 'good' girl, who is deemed suitable for marriage, comes along. Bardot successfully emotes silent but deep emotional hurt when Juliette accidentally overhears Antoine telling a friend that she's only good for a one-night stand just minutes after he has told her that he loves her and wants her to move to Toulon with him. Her misery is further compounded the next morning when, after foolishly giving Antoine the benefit of the doubt, she packs her bags and waits for the Toulon bus: Antoine neglects to instruct the bus driver to stop and coldly avoids Juliette's gaze as the bus sails past her. He's the kind of callous bastard that gets all men a bad name. His chief competitor, Carradine, is no better. He kids himself that he has deciphered and mastered all aspects of feminine psychology but his efforts to tempt Juliette into entering a relationship based on sex in exchange for luxury items simply make him look like a sleazy old man.
Juliette confesses that she can't always control her actions but if she was really the type of girl that the locals think she is she would surely have taken up Carradine's offers in a flash. As it is she declines, advising him at one point that all she needs is her husband's smile, the sea, the sun, hot sand, music and food. The locals delight in talking about Juliette's bad reputation but it seems that they are just as perturbed by her proto-hippyish behaviour (sunbathing nude, walking barefoot, staying out late dancing, not giving a damn about her job, caring for animals, etc). We don't see any evidence of Juliette's supposed promiscuity until she and Antoine are thrown together under exceptional circumstances during the film's final chapter. Alas, while it might take two to tango, all of the blame for their indiscretion is predictably laid at Juliette's door and the film goes on to suggest that a few hard slaps from Michel are all that's needed to get their marriage back on track.
Half a century's worth of legend-accumulating hype has only served to obscure the true content and nature of ... And God Created Woman. I can imagine that parts of the film did carry some shock value in its day and I'm sure that the film did cause genuine excitement amongst much of its 'new youth' audience during its initial release. But today the film plays like a reasonably well observed, if slightly self-consciously hip, 'slice of life' drama that succeeds in successfully presenting often unremarkable day to day happenings in ways which will appeal to most fans of vintage World Cinema. The 'as found' St. Tropez locations look great: they bring much to the film and probably go as far as to carry some sections of it. The acting on display is generally very good and the young Jean-Louis Trintignant is so convincing as the shy and awkward Michel that his performance here makes it hard to imagine that he'd go on to become a romantic leading man (A Man and a Woman) or an iconic Spaghetti Western anti-hero (The Great Silence).
I'm assuming that this DVD has been taken from the restored master that Roger Vadim had a hand in preparing several years back because the picture quality here really is stunning. Every shot is pin-sharp and the film's often quite remarkable colours are amazingly strong, solid and vibrant. And there's virtually no evidence of any print damage present. The disc's sound is clear and warm, presenting the film's original French soundtrack supported by optional English subtitles.
Les Grandes Manoeuvres opens in a fairly light-hearted manner, drawing elements from both the comedy of manners and the bedroom farce traditions but the film takes on a very serious and dramatic tone during its moving final chapters. Set in a provincial French town on the eve of World War One, the film's comedy of manners elements are particularly well observed. Morose Marie-Louise's position as an outsider from the big city and a divorcée to boot mean that most of the town's high society gossips have formed an opinion about her before they've even met her. Victor Duverger is an old friend who is now able to profess his love and think about marriage but he's also a ditherer: he's afraid of letting their relationship go public because he knows that it might adversely affect his social standing. As such, the pair cannot be seen arriving or leaving social functions together and when he tests the water by inviting Marie-Louise to meet his sisters an uncomfortable atmosphere pervades: while a gramophone plays a song with lyrics which laugh "what fun we're having", Clair presents a succession of shots which show a drawing room full of silent and awkward faces.
Armand's status as a soldier means that Marie-Louise shouldn't really be seen in the street with him in uniform. When he pursues her through the town and insists on walking with her, a Greek chorus of observing military officers positioned in the foreground provide us with knowing examples of the romantic patter that they know Armand must surely be spouting. True to form, he is using his stock chat-up lines but this time he really means what he's saying. As the couple walk further on, a succession of small minded observers make up their own salacious scenarios to account for the pair being in public together.
Although Armand is introduced as being a bit of an uncaring cad, Marie-Louise brings out the best in him while he is able to make her smile again and, while we sympathise with Victor, we really want Armand and Marie-Louise to get together. Alas, Armand's seduction techniques are so well known that some of his former conquests playfully make a game of acting out his best lines and gestures in a local bar and Marie-Louise becomes distressed when she overhears them. When she finds out about the wager it seems that Armand has blown his one chance of true love. (Spoiler begins....) Gérard Philipe, Michèle Morgan and Jean Desailly all skilfully switch from light comedy mode to full-on heartbreaking dramatics for the film's finale. Victor is in pieces by the end and he delivers a tirade which leaves Marie-Louise convinced that Armand has used and humiliated her. Armand in turn stands in the pouring rain trying to convince her otherwise. In the background his drunken friends unwittingly make things worse for him, leaving the film to end on a very downbeat note (....spoiler ends).
Gérard Philipe (Fanfan la Tulipe), Jean Desailly and Michèle Morgan are all perfectly cast as the lead players here. Philipe was a natural choice for a romantic lead while Desailly fits the bill as his older, more bookish, rival. With her statuesque body and chiselled face, blonde Michèle Morgan portrays a quiet, slightly more mature but elegant and icily attractive beauty who contrasts well with the young and bubbly supporting actresses like Brigitte Bardot: Bardot plays Lucie, the love interest of Armand's likeable pal and fellow officer Felix Leroy (Yves Robert). Pierre Dux is amusing as Armand's noisy commanding officer. He likes to lecture his men about their behaviour and morals while secretly carrying on an affair with a beautiful young singer, Therese (Magali Noel). These supporting characters and others play a part in the various subplots that weave in and out of the main storyline. Georges Van Parys' soundtrack score includes military marching band sounds, period dance pieces and a variety of cues that fit the film's romantic tone well.
René Clair seemingly had close ties to the French creative arts scene (his early surrealist short, Entr'acte, featured Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray) and his artistic bent can be felt in this expertly assembled mainstream film. The camera placement and general picture compositions are very good while the film itself is well paced and utilizes some interesting and quite zippy editing techniques. Much of the film appears to have been shot on studio sets which are well designed while the film's art direction employs a noticeably good colour scheme. On the strength of this outing, Clair fully deserved his reputation as a stylish operator. I'm not always taken by this type of show but an abundance of wit and charm, and a superbly dramatic finale, make Les Grandes Manoeuvres a winner.
C'Est La Vie have managed yet another excellent presentation of a vintage French film. This disc boasts a picture that is sharp with colours that are strong and vibrant. There are a couple of minor jumps due to missing frames present but, beyond these and a couple of minor scratches, there's not much to worry about in terms of print damage. The sound, which features the film's original French soundtrack supported by optional English subtitles, is clear and strong. A really remarkable 'alternate ending' is included in the extra features section: (spoiler begins....) as the sequence starts it appears that it is simply going to be a happy version of the existing downbeat ending. However, what unfolds is actually more tragic and upsetting (....spoiler ends). Clair's surrealist short, Entr'acte, is also present here. It's a remarkable if bizarre and macabre piece of work which features visuals that are tightly edited to match the building speed and intensity of its Erik Satie soundtrack. The Hollywood Remembers docu consists mainly of Bardot-related film trailers and newsreel footage.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Les Grandes Manoeuvres rates: