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Western directed by Louis Malle and starring Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau. Set in Central America in 1907, two Marias, one (Bardot) the daughter of an Irish revolutionary and the second (Moreau) a French singer, find themselves thrown together in a touring vaudeville act. In between singing and accidentally discovering striptease, the Marias find themselves caught up in a revolution. When the revolutionary leader and lover of Maria (Bardot) is killed, the two girls vow to carry on with the struggle.
Along with The Thief of Paris, Viva Maria! was a career-stalling flop for Louis Malle, here given his largest budget and two of France's biggest female exports, Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot. It's not entirely hard to see why the film flopped, his tale of two singers/strippers who get caught up in a Mexican revolution playing like a cross between Heller in Pink Tights and a sendup of a spaghetti Western. Certainly you'll probably spend the first half hour wondering what the plot will be when they get round to it, as Bardot's daughter of an eternal revolutionary - any revolution, it seems, will do as long as he gets to blow things or people up - finds herself suddenly orphaned and just as suddenly the replacement for Moreau's partner in her double-act after the lovesick girl kills herself. A lousy performer and a terrible singer, they compensate by accidentally inventing striptease, to the delight of their South of the Border clientele, only to get briefly involved with George Hamilton's revolution against evil landlord and local dictator José Ángel Espinoza.
Although there are some neat sight gags along the way - the skeleton of a horse and rider by the side of a desert road perhaps the best - Malle and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière save most of their ammunition for the last half hour, which plays like a live action Looney Toons cartoon with a constant stream of neat and increasingly surreal sight gags targeting religion and capital.... The determinedly but ineptly misogynist Inquisition's instruments of torture falling to pieces because it's been so long since they were last used and the Father Superior losing his head but not his disdain for perfidious women could almost have come out of a Bunuel film, and there's a striking moment of magic realism when a magician brings a dove back to life after a raucous customer shoots it, but generally Malle's opting for something much more unashamedly populist and spectacular here even while gleefully undermining it. (Malle was bemused by Rainer Werner Fassbinder's belief that the two heroines represented two different approaches to revolution - direct action against the system by any means necessary versus change from within through legal means: Malle thought of it as a simple light-comic adventure film in the mould of L'Homme du Rio with no intellectual pretensions beyond being a reaction against the `monumental bore' the New Wave had become in French cinema).
So, a film that's best enjoyed at face value, then. Aside from the perversity of seeing far right-winger Bardot as a Marxist revolutionary, there's a beautiful Georges Delerue score and some gorgeous Scope cinematography from Henri Decae that ensures that the film always looks and sounds good even if it doesn't really know how to end. Curiously, while the TV prints generally seem to be the dubbed English version that entirely drops the wistful opening song, Generique - both Delerue's haunting music and Malle and Carrière's rueful lyrics - the PAL DVD version only offer the superior French language version with no extras in a good 2.35:1 widescreen transfer.Read more ›
Viva Maria is a wonderfully sexy, screwball, and at times surreal period comedy starring the two great French sex symblos of the Sixties - Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau. I must admit that when I first saw this film way back then, I was primarily attracted to the obvious charms of La Bardot. But now that I am older and wiser (well, older anyway) I can fully appreciate the subtle sensuality of Jeanne Moreau whose gorgeous eyes alone could seduce any man. Together, these two make a formidable team and seem to genuinely spark off each other.
The plot is suitably silly. In some unnamed South American country, Bardot is an Irish (!) terrorist's daughter who has learned all the tricks of the trade before suddenly becoming orphaned. On the run from the authorities, she takes refuge with a motley band of travelling performers whose shows seem to mix circus and music hall. Moreau is a star attraction although she has just lost the partner in her double act. Naturally, the two girls - both named Maria - end up on stage together where problems with the costumes lead to some delightful striptease sequences. The girls are a big hit - no surprise!
The troupe's travels take them to a country in the midst of revolution. Moreau falls for the rebel leader - George Hamilton, of all people, trying hard to look moody and magnificent. When he is killed (sad for Maria, relief for the audience) the two Marias take over leadership of the rebels, inspired by Moreau's zeal and Bardot's technical knowledge of explosives.
The film rattles along at a brisk pace, littered along the way with saucy humour and outrageous sight gags.... There is a marvellous supporting cast to jolly things along, chief among them the droll Claudio Brook as the head of the troupe - a crack shot obsessed with developing a gun to shoot around corners. And, as is director Louis Malle's habit, there are also some bitingly funny digs at the Catholic Church. This is not a film to be taken seriously, as its many surreal touches prove. For example, the still standing skeleton of a horse and rider. Or the big black border guards who drink tea and speak English with impeccable Oxbridge accents. It says a lot for the ensemble playing that the film is still fun when Bardot and Moreau are not on screen.
But, of course, it's fantastic when they are - Bardot the playful kitten who enjoys sex and explosives equally, and Moreau the slightly more mature cat: sleek, sensuous and seductive. I hate to tell you about the dreams I had after seeing her love scene with Hamilton - in a prison with him chained helplessly against a wall. Maybe not a great film but certainly superlative entertainment.Read more ›
Viva Maria! is really a fantastic film, worthy to stand alongside Malle's finest, or very nearly ... in the end it falls short of his greatest work, perhaps, for not having the depth of meaning of Au Revoir Les Enfants or Le Souffle Au Coeur. We do not learn much about life from this caper, but it has all the value of entertainment of the highest order, and a lot of aesthetic pleasure along the way. Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot play off each other wonderfully, and Moreau's character reminded me a bit of her incarnation in Jules et Jim, but in colourful dresses and without the serious undercurrents - her ability to tell of her past is used by Malle as Truffaut did, capitalising on her beautiful voice and pointing up a more comic potential. The film reminds me a bit, in tone, of Candide, and it is constantly interesting to see how Malle balances the comic requirements against the waging of a revolution in 1907 with the body count that that suggests. He does it by making the violence very "cops and robbers" in style - we see very little actual blood. Likewise, when the girls are being tortured by the Catholic church in this unnamed South American country, we never really fear for them as the priest tightens the vise around their heads - it subsequently breaks for which the Padre apologises, saying it had been very little used in recent times, or some such absurdity ... you might think it wouldn't work on film as well as in Voltaire's book, but Malle really does pull it off....
There is a loss of meaning in these events, in comparison with Voltaire's philosophical underpinnings, however there are other superb benefits: a whole string of amazing sight-gags in the latter stages of the film, the beauty of the camerawork by Henri Decae, and the fabulous score by Georges Delerue, who also wrote the music for Jules et Jim. And here too Moreau gets to sing a couple of songs with Bardot, and with a terrific charm. In fact I was quite sad that it abandoned the musical genre about halfway through and became a sort of comic spaghetti western with circus elements still thrown in, and a few costumes. The duet where they improvise the first striptease is a classic scene - it really is laugh-out-loud funny, with Moreau being bored by the trite, slightly saucy song that sounds as if it has come straight out of La Ronde, but trying to breathe some life into it for the sake of the audience. Bardot doesn't know the words, or even the tune, so it is a bit of a mess until she rips off a part of her dress by mistake. The idea of ripping clothes is later amusingly taken up when Moreau has a love scene with a prisoner clapped in irons, but this doesn't stop her ripping his shirt off in the heat of passion, or indeed her own (we hear the ripping sound but it's too dark to see exactly what it is that's been ripped). For the acting, the music, the silliness, the scenery, and the original tone, Viva Maria! has to be seen!Read more ›