THE CULTURAL ICON

La chevelure de Bérénice

Or the eternally inspiring power of Brigitte Bardot.

By Elena Vassilieva

“Approchez, que je vous embrasse.” – C’est ici que l’espérance nourrit l’amour. Image (the photo of Brigitte Bardot used in the readymade is by © Douglas Kirkland; the Cheetah fur is fake!) and words by Elena Vassilieva.

Recently, when I had been on the hunt for documentaries on Brigitte Bardot at the local library, the search engine delivered me a curious title that caught my eye at once. The book was called In an Elevator with Brigitte Bardot (2007) and was written by a Cape Codder, Michael Lee. Once, as a teenager, by the greatest stroke of luck, he rode with the French actress in an elevator at the Plaza Hotel in NYC. He doesn’t say when exactly, but he mentions that Brigitte Bardot was wearing a leopard coat then. So maybe it was in the 60s when leopard print coats became very popular? The memory of that brief (25 floors!) encounter hadn’t been revealed by him to the public for 40 years until one day, at the neighbourhood cocktail party in his house, while joining a company of the New Year’s resolutionists, he hesitatingly declared: “Well, ah, I’m going to give up Brigitte Bardot”. Naturally, his neighbours had a puzzled look on their faces, the minute he said that, as if he were a lunatic: “Give up on Brigitte Bardot?” One hardly has to be a madman or a stalker who finally came to his senses to say something like this, as the force of her aesthetic powers has been superior and ubiquitous throughout the years. Not only male minds and hearts she has held captive, but also those of women, children, and the elderly.

Many cinema appreciators would probably recall the film “Dear Brigitte” (1965) with James Stewart, Brigitte Bardot playing a cameo role there, and a child actor Billy Mumy, who was left in awe of the actress saying that he will never forget the lucky occasion of meeting her and seeing first-hand how not only otherworldly beautiful she was, but also very kind and warm. I have never met Brigitte Bardot in person, but I remember how my Grandmother took me to a department store on my 6th birthday, and there I saw one doll that took my fancy at once. Made in Germany and named Brigitte, she looked just like Brigitte Bardot about whom I had little knowledge at the time, but my Grandmother was overjoyed to buy this doll for me. I still have Brigitte, and she gladdens my heart every time I catch a glimpse of her. Another grandmother, a relative of my friends, was over the moon when her granddaughter of the kindergarten age resembled the French star with her long blond hair and her irresistible loveliness so much that she could have easily been Brigitte Bardot’s twin. “This is our little Brigitte Bardot,” the girl’s grandmother playfully introduced her to others. Alas, to her huge disappointment, later, when the granddaughter grew up, Brigitte Bardot seemed to have left her for good, the girl’s appearance was taken over by her own nature instead. But even if she had retained Brigitte Bardot’s striking looks, she would have lacked the singularity and the very essence of Bardot’s personality. If her animals could talk human languages, they would reveal to us too that their dueña has charmed every single one of them in the Animal Kingdom. Especially now, since she has been for decades such a fearless and persistent advocate of the animals’ rights. Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle-series is a must-read in my household, and every time I read it to one of my very young relatives, Brigitte Bardot comes to mind, surrounded by her family of animals.

In his essay, Michael Lee reminds us that his fondness for the French actress was by no means such an out of the ordinary thing, because utter obsession with her was more than just a personal circumstance of one particular man, it was a cultural trend, if not craze, that had universal quality to it, sort of “a generational secret”: every American [and not American!] man who was born between 1943 and 1955, he writes, “has at one time or another been locked into a mental affaire d’amour with Brigitte Bardot”. And while he doesn’t disclose many details of the conversation with his guests that day, he shares, self-deprecatingly, his feelings with the reader how Brigitte Bardot, the Golden Goddess, in his words, had been burning his heart and occupying his thoughts for decades. Although based on strong and intense emotions, infatuation is a fleeting thing that lasts only a short period of time, particularly if one thinks of male preoccupation and adoration of woman’s flesh. What precisely was it, then? His wife thinks his “teenage crush with Brigitte Bardot is cute”, but he disagrees with her firmly: “Puppies are cute, not my relationship with Ms. Bardot”. Of course, it’s very audacious to call one’s obsession a relationship without quotation marks, if there is only one person in this game, as any relationship, by definition, presupposes the other, who exists not only on an imaginary level, but who also communicates with that other person in real life. However, it’s forgivable, since he implies it himself that it’s only his flights of fancy which aren’t transgressive or harmful, on the contrary, he finds them very satisfying, otherwise his feelings wouldn’t have lasted for 40 (!) years. As for his wife’s choice of words, the adjective ‘cute’ is a very tricky one, in the American social and cultural context at least, it may often contain pejorative undertones of judgementalism or even hypocrisy, according to my personal observations.

Obviously, it must have been much more than just an obsessive desire for Brigitte Bardot’s physique. It wouldn’t be completely wrong to assert that although he idolises and worships her persona, to his credit, he manages not to objectify her at all. His unceasing admiration for her had given him much more than only aesthetic pleasure and the phantasmagoria of the erotic dreamscape. And it’s hard to explain, why an ordinary person, who might have been in the same physical space with him, had been unable to do the same. Brigitte Bardot had been influencing him, a perfect stranger, so powerfully from a distance, from her unreachable to others space that was perceived by her admirers as sacred, untouchable, and hopeful, which was absolutely essential to them in order to feed their imagination and love, whatever love is, speaking with Prince Charles. That space was observed by them through the cultural lens of her movies, posters, and photographs. To most, that was the only way to get a glimpse of this alluring space of hers. The first row at the St George college’s movie theatre seemed to bring him closer to his heroine’s space, yet the physical obstacle of the movie screen made Brigitte Bardot an unattainable love aim, but simultaneously a highly desirable ideal. And even when, finally, he decided to abandon his idee fixe, surprisingly, he gave the impression of being not quite ready to part with it. Moreover, his own resolution saddened him a great deal, as if he were about to lose something very important, which had become a significant and necessary part of his existence. Even if the short accidental meeting in the elevator didn’t entirely change his life, and despite its randomness, it most likely made him feel special and chosen, the very sensation might have kept him afloat, above the monotonous greyness and tediousness of the everyday. It might have even given him indeed the strength to overcome difficulties in life. And, best of all, it inspired him to write the collection of essays.

La beauté qui le captive. Brigitte Bardot in Cannes, 1956. The photo by © Edward Quinn from his book “Stars, Stars, Stars off the Screen” (1997).

Brigitte Bardot had interested him prior to that momentous ‘togetherness’ in the elevator, since he was eagerly following all her artistic endeavours. Although her image depended on a movie role she was playing, there isn’t a single film where she would come across as false, vulgar or uninspiring, even when she had to play anti-heroines, such as Dominique Marceau in La Vérité (1960) by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jeanne in Don Juan ou Si Don Juan était une femme… (1973) by Roger Vadim. And she played them superbly, without sacrificing her personal space. But the fact that he didn’t expect, let alone plan, to see her in person at the moment when the elevator door opened must have had a tremendously large effect on his teenage self. The sudden appearance of his idol out of nowhere neared a dreamlike experience, which transferred him into a state of spellbinding and disorienting trance to the point that he lost his ability to speak or to think for the entire ride. Brigitte Bardot blinded him with her smile and deafened him with her warm and kind ‘Hello’, and those were the only things she explicitly and deliberately did. He, on the other hand, was unable to return civility and politeness in the elevator until they were brought down to the lobby, and when the actress was about to step out of the elevator and disappear, in the last moment, he dared to transgress that sacred space of hers by timidly touching the sleeve of her coat, but found a way to rehabilitate himself discursively: “Ms. Bardot. Thanks. Thanks for everything. Everything. Thanks for everything.” Brigitte Bardot didn’t say a thing to this, she just smiled at him and left. He didn’t follow her, but returned to the confinement of the elevator space instead and, thinking she might have given him wings, was transposed straight back to heaven, figuratively speaking, of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if the brevity of this memorable elevator ride equaled timelessness to Mr Lee. Isn’t it truly amazing what two polite, but very sincere smiles and one ‘Hello’, uttered by the Golden Goddess, can do to the mere mortal?  

Brigitte Bardot’s inspirational powers will always be forceful: men will sigh and groan and fantasise the wildest things known and unknown on Earth, aside to writing songs about her and dreaming about encountering someone who would have at least her hair; women will always envy her and her hair, some lovingly, some rancorously, but everyone would agree that as a cultural icon she is par excellence, unmatchable and unreachable. She will always be longed equally as much by men as by women. Men will make their women have her hairdo, women will be desperate for the Brigitte Bardot look. But there will always be the one and only Brigitte Bardot, no matter how hard women continue their efforts to emulate her. She herself has never tried to imitate anyone, and she has never envied anyone, speaking only well of the men and women with whom she worked in the past. She will always lure and seduce people with her most exquisite beauty that has the power to melt the stars, along with the brilliance of her authentic persona, and with the straightforwardness of her strong and bright personality.

Brigitte Bardot’s hair, just like la chevelure de Bérénice, has become the entity in its own right, destined to be as legendary as her whole artistic persona. That topic deserves another round of musings, which I shall pursue in the future. Besides having Brigitte the doll, given to me by my dearest Grandmother, I have the Brigitte Bardot boots, almost identical to the ones she wore when she was performing the Harley-Davidson song, and I must say they are awfully unsuitable for a motorcycle ride. I also own a similar fake cheetah jacket from the Moon landing epoch when she wore her cheetah print coat, but neither the boots nor the coat will ever make me look like she does, not in the slightest degree, and that isn’t tragic at all. But in case I must ever make a New Year’s resolution using Mr Lee’s exact words, it would sound only like this: Well, I’m not going to give up Brigitte Bardot! Why should I, if she inspires me so much for the good of mankind? And I’m endlessly grateful to her for this.  

(Written on Cape Cod, in the Sky Control Room on the windy night/morning of Tuesday, September 28, 2021.)

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.

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