Viva Maria! is the sort of movie that could only have been made in the 60s. Only in the 60s could someone have come up with the idea of doing an epic western combined with a sex comedy combined with slapstick combined with a Marxist political tract. And getting Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot to star in it, as two women who invent striptease and in their spare time lead a Central American revolution. And getting Louis Malle to direct it.
Now you might think this sounds like a catastrophically bad idea for a movie. And you’d be right. The film is not all bad. It has some good moments. There’s some real visual wit and inventiveness in the street battle scenes towards the end. Some of the gags work. And it has Brigitte Bardot. Her charm, cheerfully unabashed sexiness and comedic talents almost rescue the movie.
Bardot plays the daughter of an IRA man who follows in her dad’s footsteps. After spending most of her childhood and adolescence blowing up British soldiers she ends up on the run in Central America where she hides out with a traveling vaudeville troupe. The year is 1907. She befriends a singer/dancer named Maria (Jeanne Moreau) and since her name is Maria as well they decide to do a double act as the Two Marias. Initially the act goes over like the proverbial lead balloon, but then Bardot has a moment of inspiration and starts taking her clothes off. Moreau follows suit, and not surprisingly the act is a major hit and the Two Marias become stars.
So far it’s been a mildly amusing moderately sexy romp. The movie then switches gears in a rather alarming fashion, as Moreau falls in love with the leader of a revolutionary peasant army and she and Bardot end up leading a revolution.
There are many things to admire in French cinema but a talent for high camp isn’t one of them. Unfortunately that’s the only approach that would have worked for this movie. It really needed a British director. The British understand camp. A Lindsay Anderson might have made something out of it. Even a British-based American like Joseph Losey might have pulled it off, rather in the style of his very underrated Modesty Blaise. Malle tries for camp, but he doesn’t have the right touch, and his satire is much too heavy handed. It’s just not funny enough. The movie also suffers from being much too long.
On the plus side the movie takes a positive view of aggressive female sexuality, with Bardot keeping a running tally of her sexual conquests on the wall of her caravan. She is soon in danger of running out of wall space. And it can be seen as a female counterpart of the male buddy movies that were to become such a tedious feature of film-making in the 60s and 70s. Thelma and Louise without the self-pity.
The movie caused some controversy and became the subject of a major Supreme Court battle in the United States. It played an important role in re-affirming First Amendment protection for movies, and also played its part in destroying the Hollywood Production Code. In fact for a movie about strippers it’s extraordinarily tame, with not a hint of actual nudity. What upset the moral watchdogs was its approving attitude towards Bardot’s character’s voracious sexual appetites.
It’s worth a look if you’re a Bardot fan.