THE CULTURAL ICON

The Everlasting Enigma of Brigitte Bardot’s Star Power

Part one.

By Elena Vassilieva

Brigitte Bardot on the Shalako set in Almeria, 1968. Photo by © Jacques Héripret, © Groupe Eyrolles, 2013.

It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that the star power of Brigitte Bardot’s iconic persona had been evident already after her first appearance on the screen in Jean Boyer’s comedy Le Trou normand (Crazy for Love) in 1952. In fact, it was love at first sight with the ballet-trained, happiness inducing and affection inspiring French actress. Unwittingly, ever since, she has launched an enormous follow of admirers, among which have not only been men, but also women and children (most notably teenagers) who all literally seemed to have lost their sleep in pursuit of finding the key to the enigma of the French cultural icon. The enigma that distinguishes her so much from other cinema personalities to this day.

At the time when Brigitte Bardot made her movie debut, she had already been an accomplished ballet dancer who grew to be one of the brightest talents (she graduated forth in her class) at the Conservatoire de Paris. She later took ballet lessons from the Russian ballet dancer and choreographer Boris Kniazeff. She said that her ballet studies made her a stronger and very disciplined person and her work ethic acquired at the Conservatoire has always been to her advantage. The photographer and her dear friend, the late Jacques Héripret, whom she met on the set of Shalako in Almeria, in 1968, wrote in the afterword of BB en liberté. Photos hors plateau (2013) that “[o]n set she was a great professional. She knew her lines by heart and, as we say in the film industry, she ‘was on the razor’s edge’. […] She was attentive to details given by the director Edward Dmytryk, focused, always in a good mood, remarkably nice to the technicians, friendly, courteous with her partners – Sean Connery, Stefen Boyd, Peter Van Eyck – never once was she difficult or temperamental during all those months. I wanted, for once and for all, to put an end to the rumor claiming she was unmanageable on a set.” (Héripret 2013, p. 153)

But not only wanted he the unfair rumour to be disqualified and to vanish, Jacques Héripret, like many others before him, also strived to comprehend what exactly makes Brigitte Bardot so utterly special and otherworldly. I doubt he had ever said that to her, not directly, anyway, unlike many other professional men, such as cinematographers and journalists, but none the less he received her permission to photograph her whenever he pleased on the Shalako set, and that was certainly proof of his curiousity and high regard for her. She, therefore, didn’t pose at all, all the pictures of her are spontaneous, “unbeknownst to me,” she said, and document the precious moments of that period of her life. When a trustful and friendly relationship between the photographer and the actress had been established, soon after, Brigitte Bardot seemed to have taken a fancy to photograph by herself, as there are quite a few shots of hers with a camera in her hands. By then Jacques Héripret must have realised that to the camera, she was a true and rare photogenic perfection from any given angle or vantage point, but had he been able to grasp the enigmatic side of her persona then? He photographed and photographed her endlessly during those four months, there had been total one thousand and five hundred photos of Brigitte Bardot: talking to her colleagues, sitting and waiting in her chair, playing a card game, dancing and singing, resting on the ground, riding a horse, or playing with her dog Hippy. She looks exquisite on each one of them, and, of course, for that she praised his talent. But there are also the pictures that are less traditional, such as a close-up of her hair or her hands or part of her face where one can see the wrinkles of the mortal when she is smiling. The naturalness and sheer liveliness of such images indicate that she, like anyone else, is a human being who may have wrinkles on her face, yet, despite it, she is not like any other human being. She is different, as Héripret’s pictures remind us. And that is exactly the paradox of the situation, the photographer must have thought; one can have all the wrinkles of the mortal, yet still be majestically surrounded by the impenetrable air of the goddess. But how is it possible?

The question still remains not fully answered, in spite of Héripret’s conclusion that it is her wholesomeness and personal traits that made her glorious and celebrated such that General De Gaulle would firmly believe “that Brigitte Bardot brought in more foreign currency to France than Renault.” (Héripret, ibid., p. 154) And who would dare to disagree with that? Her cultural significance is so great that one should never underestimate the influence of her personality that has contributed immensely to her iconic status. “She is a free woman. Her loyalty is legendary. She is straight as an arrow. Her word is a contract,” wrote he. (Ibid.) And this is what Héripret’s interpretation of Brigitte Bardot as an icon differentiates from the mainstream view. From the start, he refused to see her exclusively through the erotic lens and as a sex symbol. Clearly, upon meeting her in person, he understood quickly that the eroticism, as alluring as it seemed, was not enough to comprehend her persona fully and fairly. Moreover, it was simply too limiting because of the lamentable untenability of the erotic construction towards her whole personality. Instead, he chose to see her as “an anti-star, an unpretentious woman, a woman with her doubts, her joys.” (Ibid.) And by doing so, he did a magnificent job. (To be continued)

Written in the breezy hours of the night, on 27 September 2022, on the shore of Little Harbor, on Cape Cod.

Copyright © 2022 by Elena Vassilieva