Amidst old school Hollywood epics like The Ten Commandments, Giant, and the ridiculously painful – and painfully sterile – Oscar winner Around the World in 80 Days (possibly the worst film to net the prize), American Cinema was going through a cultural shift in 1956.
We learned our children were dangerous (The Bad Seed), commies could be aliens from another planet (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and family favorites Doris Day and Abbott and Costello were capable of dialing down the laughs and cranking up the tears (The Man Who Knew Too Much and Dance With Me, Henry, respectively). Even the musical was rife with controversy, directly dealing with domestic violence (Carousel) and slavery (The King & I).
The movies were also dripping with sexuality. Written on the Wind gave us infidelity, abortion, and female sexual aggression.
Baby Doll positioned Carroll Baker as the untouchable teen bride of Karl Malden.
Bus Stop revealed a post-Actors’ Studio Marilyn as a “dance-hall” girl who flees a proposition of marriage (or an abduction, as it were) because she doesn’t feel worthy of domesticity…
…while The Girl Can’t Help It tries to convince us that buxom Jayne Mansfield wants nothing more than just that.
And then there was Brigitte Bardot.
Quite possibly the most beautiful woman to saunter in front of a lens, French model/actress had appeared in numerous films before husband Roger Vadim (who wed her when she was a mere 15) cast her in his feature debut. And God Created Woman follows the freewheelin’ Juliette as she shimmies from man to man, much to the consternation of her adoptive parents who can’t control her “wild” ways. She carries on an affair with the much older business tycoon Carradine to little satisfaction while pining for Antoine, the handsome sailor in town whose family owns the neighborhood ship yard. When Juliette’s parents threaten to send her back to the orphanage, Carradine propositions Antoine to marry her so she can always stay within his grasp (it is unclear why Carradine can’t marry her himself – chances are she would say no given their interactions and her clear ambivalence towards him, but this is not even set forward as an option; their relationship was no secret by any means so this seems like more of a plot convenience than anything else). Antoine, knowing of her sexually unquenchable appetite, scoffs at this before skipping town. As second best, Juliette marries Antoine’s brother, Michel. At first, they find marital – and sexual bliss – but when Antoine returns, Juliette’s world – and panties – finds itself in a proverbial wad.
There is a side plot involving the selling of Antoine’s family’s shipyard to Carradine to build a casino, but this is a MacGuffin designed for nothing more than to keep Juliette’s suitors in the same universe. The film knows its ace in the hole is Bardot’s “talent” and gives us plenty of it. Vadim sexualizes, fetishes, her from the start, showing us her naked feet (recycled by Kubrick in the opening credits of Lolita) and then her backside…
before her face peers, ironically, from behind a clothesline…
(quite possibly the sexiest introduction to a character since Hayworth flipped her hair in Gilda).
But despite her unabashed sexual liberalism – never seedy in any kind of trashy, American music video kind of way, but more of a matter of fact – Juliette, like Barbara Stanwyck before her, must be punished into submission. After her marital transgression with Antoine, she goes into her favorite bar, gets plastered, and dances to the sexy rhythms of the bongos. As if out of Shakespeare, Carradine, Antoine, and Michel all arrive to “save” – or kill – her. As Juliette reaches a fevered pitch of erotic explosion…
Michel gives us the orgasm with the gun shot – meant for Juliette – that wounds Carradine. Michel plays the good husband and slaps the shit out of his wife in the company of all (I wouldn’t be surprised if Vadim had him actually strike her as some retaliation for her real life infidelity during the shooting of the film).
Bardot’s “acting” is perfect in this scene (and the rest of the film); completely void of vanity or tricks throughout; she simply is Juliette (or Bardot). No tears. No hands raised to fight back. No words. Just a look that is somewhere between understanding, acceptance, and indignation.
What of the title? Clearly a hark to the tale in Genesis, And God Created Woman, is told through the pen of “Adam” despite being told through the eyes of “Eve”. We are supposed to align with Juliette throughout, but Vadim makes his statement quite clear in the finale as Michel drags her off to their home post-beating, presumably with the balance of power back in “Adam’s” hands. Could this be his own frustration with the power of Bardot? Or all of mankind’s frustration with the power of women everywhere to get them to eat the apple?