In 1960, French producers wanted to capitalize on the success of three horror films from Britain’s Hammer Pictures: Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959). All three were shot in lurid color and pushed the envelope in the amount of sex and violence one could get away with. Although opulently decorated (even with their small budgets) in oceans of Victorian finery, these Gothic horrors did not rely on poetry or moody atmosphere. They operated in the realm of visceral, bloody thrills. They were brash, animalistic, and within the context of their own stories, logical. Things that happened made sense. There was a reason behind everything. The supernatural was something that could be comprehended by the human mind, explained, and ultimately defeated.
When producers tried to import this new style of horror to France, it resulted in films which, while inspired by Hammer, took a very different approach — one that in time would become recognizable as a distinctly “Continental” style of horror, less concerned with logic and plot and more focused on mood. If the things that happened didn’t make sense, so what? That was how nightmares worked. Two films, both released in 1960, embraced this concept of cinema fantastique. One was Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face). The other was Roger Vadim’s Et mourir de plaisir (Blood and Roses), an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s influential “Carmilla.” Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) cited “Carmilla” as its source material, but the film had little in common with the story. It wasn’t until Vadim that Le Fanu’s doomed vampire found her way onto movie screens.
These days, those who know of Roger Vadim probably know two things about him: first, that he directed Barbarella; and second, that he married or had flings with, among others, Brigitte Bardot, Annette Stroyberg, Catherine Deneuve, and Jane Fonda. All things considered, being remembered for those two things is hardly a pitiable legacy, but it doesn’t do justice to his vision — uneven though it may have been — as a filmmaker. Nor does it do justice to the women, all of whom certainly deserve to be (and for the most part, are) thought of as more than “Roger Vadim’s ingénues.” On the other hand, it’s not as if Vadim himself didn’t trumpet his amorous liaisons. In 1986 he even wrote a book called Bardot, Deneuve and Fonda: My Life With The Three Most Beautiful Women In The World. He wrote multiple autobiographies, in fact, the first of which he titled Memoirs of the Devil. This was not a man who regretted that he “couldn’t be known as more,” as the lament often goes. No, this was a man who embraced with gusto his position as a radical even among the radicalized, as a playboy, a tempter, and Svengali to a steady procession of young actresses.
Given the swingin’ sixties lifestyle for which he became famous, one expects that Vadim must have lived a pampered, luxurious life. And one would be correct. His Ukrainian father, Igor Nikolaevich Plemiannikov, was a military officer who immigrated to France and took a job as a high-ranking diplomat. He married a French actress named Marie-Antoinette Ardilouze. Their first child, Roger Vladimir Plemiannikov, was born in 1928. As the scion of wealthy and worldly parents, Roger did what many aristocrats of his time did: rebelled against his upbringing and became a Bohemian, though his early life was not without its setbacks. Of course, this is Roger Vadim, so even his setbacks are the stuff of “international man of mystery” adventure. His father died when Vadim was only nine, and Marie-Antoinette made ends meet by opening a hostel in the French Alps. During World War II, it became a waystation for Jews escaping Nazi Germany.
After the war, Vadim drifted to Paris’ Left Bank and decided he might as well become an actor or something. After three years at the Charles Dullin theatre he left the stage, remarking that the daily repetition of performances was simply too dull, and secured work as an assistant to screenwriter and director Marc Allégret (the man credited with discovering Jean-Paul Belmondo). It was around this time that the twenty-something Vadim met a fifteen-year-old girl by the name of Brigitte Bardot and fell instantly in love with her. Vadim and Bardot spent the next couple of years dodging her enraged father until, finally, the couple married when she turned eighteen in 1952. As something of a wedding present to his bride, Vadim cajoled producer Raoul Levy into bankrolling a film that Vadim would direct and in which Bardot, who dreamed of being a ballet dancer and had no interest in a film career, would star. The film, which seemed designed not just to show off Bardot but also to poke at prudish morality and spark backlash that was as amusing as it was predictable, was Et Dieu… créa la femme (…And God Created Woman, 1956).
And Brigitte Bardot Created Man
This sun-drenched production set in St. Tropez was one of the first French films shot in color and widescreen. Vadim took advantage of these technological changes by making sure the first shot of the film was Bardot, completely nude (if obscured by laundry hanging out to dry) and taking up the entirety of the screen. Even in France, which had a deeper conservative streak than is often thought, this was scandalous. A guy like Roger Vadim was destined to clash with more conservative, more religious, and better behaved authority figures. The controversy helped the film, of course. It was a hit, despite critics regarding as slight, though there was often praise for Bardot.
…And God Created Woman shares several things with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s output, most notably the theme of a woman being blamed for the shortcomings of a man. But where Dreyer’s films dripped with religious guilt and internal conflict, Vadim’s colorful debut is infused with more cynicism, an occasional mean streak that keeps it an awkward balance between feminist and sexist (something Vadim would become a master of). It is the story of a sexually liberated woman named Juliete (Bardot) who, because of her tendency to do things like mambo with back people, is considered a trollop by the small-minded villagers around her. Set in another era, this “child of nature” would have almost definitely been a character accused of witchcraft. Conversely, the white village men can do no wrong because they are successful and society-minded, never mind how rotten they may actually be. Their transgressions are to be forgiven since they are men, and well-dressed men at that.
Compounding Juliete’s problem is that she is an orphan adopted by a stern couple (there’s Dreyer again) that doesn’t approve of her free spirit. They plan to send her back to the orphanage unless she settles down and gets married. She eventually finds a man she could love, but he treats her like a one-night stand and takes off the next day. His younger, more sensitive brother Michel (Jean-Louis Trintignant) takes pity on her and falls in love, and eventually the two are married against the wishes of nearly everyone. Things get more complex when a wealthy shipping magnate Eric (Curd Jurgens) takes an interest in her as well; and even more complicated when the older brother returns with romance on his mind. Although the men think of Juliete as a “destroyer of men,” Vadim is inspired by GW Pabst’s silent era classic Pandora’s Box. She’s the victim not just of opportunistic men but also of the backward attitudes of those around her.
Though the film is sympathetic to Juliete, however, she is not without her faults. She is unwilling to remain faithful to her husband, though you could say this was simply because she was forced into the marriage by circumstance. She seems less malevolent than she is simply innocent and ignorant of the fact that she, as a woman, is expected to do anything other than behave like the men around her, which means she should be free to flirt and sleep with whomever she wants (how aware was Vadim of the fact that he was basically writing about his own doomed marriage to his lead actress?). Like Lulu before her, she comes across at times and thoughtless and impetuous, sometimes selfish, and as unable to control herself as the men around her. Like them, she wants to disregard any responsibility she should take for her own actions. However, it’s not Juliete’s fault the men turn into a bunch of leering goons every time she comes around — even though that seems to be the pervading attitude of society at large, where the woman is to blame when a man acts like a dog.
Vadim became famous for his design and composition, and though this film lacks the pop-art madness of Barbarella, it’s still gorgeous. Vadim takes full advantage of the lush Mediterranean setting. He alternates between painfully composed art shots and wild naturalism, using the scope format to its fullest to convey a sense of beauty and haunting desolation. …And God Created Woman is a serviceable psycho-sexual drama, but script was not often the primary concern in French productions, and that was doubly so for Vadim. The plot is breezy at its heaviest, and the few times it attempts to inject serious drama into the proceedings are clumsy. It’s confused about what to do with its theme and often comes across as reactionary as it is progressive, unable to make up its mind whether it wants to stick by Bardot’s character or pull the morality tale ending and teach us all a valuable lesson about the wanton ways of womanhood.
It seems hesitant to fully support Juliete and also hesitant to fully condemn the men, resulting in a film of mixed messages about masculinity on the cusp of a new era trying to come to grips with a new breed of woman it fears and cannot fully comprehend. But Bardot truly shines in a film that could almost be summarized as a series of provocative postcards, or as a love letter to Bardot. It is easy to understand why the men around her are willing to throw their lives into disarray (even as they blame their weakness on her). She is hypnotic. And God Created Woman’s aspirations may overreach its ability to deliver, but we’re left, if nothing else, with a film that had aspirations and looks damn good while trying to attain them. Is it art or cheap titillation? Does it really even matter? Is there a difference?
Recognizing a good thing when he had it, Vadim wasted no time in capitalizing on the controversy of the film and meteoric rise of his wife. In 1957, he directed the erotic drama Sait-on jamais…, released alternately as No Sun in Venice; and in 1958 he and Bardot worked together again on The Night Heaven Fell. Shortly afterward, heaven did fall for Vadim, who discovered that his magnetic young wife shared his appetite for the libertine lifestyle. As was all too often the case during the era of sexual revolution, when men spoke of sexual freedom, they meant for men; not for women. The couple divorced, and Vadim soon found himself smitten with another young woman to whom he quickly wed himself: Danish actress Annette Stroyberg. It was Stroyberg, under the direction of Vadim, that gave the world its first screen Carmilla.
Carmilla Among the Decadents
Like Carl Dreyer with Vampyr, Vadim chose to make a film that relied heavily of images, evoking a silent-era atmosphere despite the color and dialogue. Rather than making a period piece, Roger Vadim chose to set Et mourir de plaisir (Blood and Roses) among his own people: the rich, decadent new Bohemians of 1950s Europe. It’ss a suitable setting for the tale of Carmilla, providing the story everything it needs to propel itself: an aristocracy, remote locations, sexual experimentation, and perhaps most important for Vadim, the chance to film beautiful women against eerie, lush, decaying landscapes and opulent modernism-meets-baroque set design that came to define many of the horror and erotic films of the 1960s.
Annette Stroyberg (who Vadim debuted in 1959’s Les Liaisons dangereuses) stars as Carmilla, an emotionally distant (or distressed) young woman who has come to a sprawling old estate to celebrate the engagement of her cousin Leopoldo (Mel Ferrer) to her friend Georgia (Elsa Martinelli). Carmilla, however, is unhappy with the arrangement, either because she is secretly in love with her cousin or, more likely it seems, she is in love with Georgia. As friends of the engaged couple lounge about, Leopoldo recounts the the dark family legend of Mircalla Karnstein, whose lost tomb is somewhere on the grounds of the estate. The story Leopoldo relays to them is more or less the story of “Carmilla.” During a masquerade ball (because what’s a gathering of decadents without a masque?) a fireworks display accidentally sets off an old WWII landmine, livening up the party and dislodging the long lost entrance to Mircalla’s crypt.
In the film’s most creepily beautiful scene, Carmilla (who spent the bulk of the party getting drunk in a room by herself) is drawn to the crypt while in a fugue state. Shortly thereafter, she begins thinking of herself as the long-dead Mircalla. Around the same time, corpses that seem to have been killed in attacks that would conform to the expectations of vampire attacks begin turning up. Is Carmilla now Mircalla? Or is she simply mad? The ambiguity of that final question is pretty well dismissed in the American release of the film, which runs a scant 74 minutes. Apart from trimming some of the more overtly sapphic content, US censors also did away with an introductory framing device in which a doctor (possibly Le Fanu’s elusive Dr. Hesselius?) explains vampire lore to a group of children. It also adds a final voiceover in which the voice of Mircalla explains that yes, she is indeed a freed spirit possessing beautiful young women and continuing her reign of vampiric terror. This definitive pronouncement on a supernatural nature is not present in the original cut of the film, which runs 87 minutes and can be damnably difficult to find.
The script by Vadim and frequent collaborator Roger Vailland was derived from a “new” version of “Carmilla” written by Claude Brulé, another frequent Vadim collaborator. It leans heavily on psychological mystery, using Le Fanu’s original as a jumping-off point to tell a story that, while not the same one as presented in “Carmilla” is a logical direction in which to take the story. As was the case with basically every film Roger Vadim made, the real strength of Et mourir de plaisir was the visual style. There are scenes that hearken back to the haunting, Pagan beauty of Dreyer’s Vampyr, most notably Carmilla’s trek through the misty woods to the overgrown, decrepit cemetery in which is located Mircalla’s restless final resting place.
Similarly, Carmilla’s journey through the night to the tomb of her possibly undead relative is a study in the effective application of Gothic horror imagery. No mere “triumph of style over substance” (a useless criticism that assumes the substance of a movie has to be derived purely from the plot rather than any one of several other elements of filmmaking), Vadim’s staging of scenes is a stunning study in mood. The dialogue is inconsequential; the design of the scenes — the clothes, the set decoration, the positions of the actors, the way each shot is framed — tells you everything you need to know. There is something slightly askew, something quietly unnerving.
Like his marriage to Brigitte Bardot, Vadim’s marriage to Stroyberg didn’t last. They divorced in 1961, but both of them landed on their feet. She entertained relationships with Alain Delon, Warren Beatty, and Omar Sharif before marrying a “French Moroccan” and, later, a Greek shipping magnate, Greek shipping magnates apparently being plentiful at the time. She retired from film in 1961. Vadim met another teen ingenue, Catherine Deneuve, and though they didn’t marry, they did have a child together. Needless to say, that relationship was brief. In 1965, Deneuve married British photographer David Bailey, whose pictures were a major impetus for the decade of Swinging London. That same year, Vadim married Jane Fonda. Between Et mourir de plaisir and his marriage to Fonda, Vadim wrote and directed several films starring Brigitte Bardot, as well as Le vice et la vertu (Vice and Virtue, 1963) starring Deneuve. His first film with Jane Fonda, 1964’s La Ronde (Circle of Love) continued to court controversy, featuring as it did the first nude scene by a major American actress. In 1968, the duo made Barbarella, Vadim’s best-known film.
Et mourir de plaisir is a gorgeous entry into the vampire film pantheon and the “Carmilla” subgenre. But still, if one was looking for a faithful adaptation of Le fanu’s classic, Et mourir de plaisir wasn’t it. It would be another decade before such an adaptation would be made, and it would be made, as fate had it, by Hammer Pictures.