Bardot: The Making of a Femme Fatale

By Singer, Barnett | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Bardot: The Making of a Femme Fatale

Singer, Barnett, The Virginia Quarterly Review

How does one create a devastating lady? In our era we seem to think that classes and degrees can somehow produce everything, but the decline of the femme fatale among twentysomethings has become apparent, not least in the cinematic realm. No new Ava Gardners or Brigitte Bardots are coming to stardom, and two main reasons are the lack of powerhouse fathers both feared and loved, and the demise of hardshell religion to shape a young lady, then give her something to revolt against. More generally, we now keep children, not least via that cacophonous babysitter, the TV, from experiencing unenjoyable strictures that might later give them character as adults.

Genetically favored, Bardot also came from the kind of background that seems to have constituted an ideal spawning ground for a femme fatale. There have been many books on this star's formative years, but we get copious additions and correctives in the best one of all, her own BB: Memoires of 1996.

The France that BB was born into Sept. 28, 1934 had passed its heyday, in good part due to the trench conflict of World War I, when for more than four years, French armies, including Bardot's father, did what Scott Fitzgerald said couldn't be done again-fought tenaciously in awful circumstances and came out on the winning side, but at massive cost. In the '20s bold new competitors arose, besides the traditional Germans or English: the U.S. in a swaggering young adulthood, and the grimmer, but ideologically seductive Soviet Union.

By 1934, when Bardot was born, France was split between the Right, tending toward Fascism, and a Left that was reluctant to fight for capitalists or anyone else. And of course by the year of her birth Hitler had already become dictator across the Rhine and begun arming his country. But Gallic enjoyment continued to reign, particularly in a capital that was still the loveliest city on earth. If you wanted a break from the rigors of British or American Puritanism, here was emphatically the spot to indulge.

Brigitte, however, was from a Paris family that had little use for the capital's racier sides. The Bardots were quite typical of a primly conservative, Catholic upper-bourgeoisie of the era-the kind of elite that has now virtually died out. BB was born and had her earliest memories on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais of Paris' classy eighth arrondissement (or district); a stone's throw from the Eiffel Tower she would later rival as a French symbol. Her mother Anne-Marie Bardot, nicknamed Toty, and father Louis, nicknamed Pilou, were strict, money-respecting, by-the-book types. Louis Bardot had graduated from engineering school and gone into the family business, which manufactured liquid air and acetylene. Sixteen years older than his wife, he was an avuncular 38 when the girl they soon dubbed Bricheton or Bri-Bri was born. Father Pilou had two distinct sides-one rather lighthearted, the other uptight and repressive. As a rule he arrived punctually in his office each morning by six a.m. (the firm had offices both in Paris and at a factory in the suburbs).

Bardot's parents retained all the then unmitigated traits of their class, but somewhat eluded the caricature as well, because each was also artistic, undoubtedly influencing the next generation to come. As a young lady Brigitte's mother Toty had studied theatre and dance, while Pilou wrote poetry in his notebook and would actually publish several volumes.

Rather like Churchill, BB was also influenced by nannies, including her lifelong favorite, Dada, from Italy, who became a kind of second mother for the intelligent child. Given Toty's difficulty having Brigitte, her wish for a boy, and her own rather standoffish elegance, this nanny somewhat filled the slack, telling "Brizzi" bedtime stories in mixed Italian-French and teaching the girl to roll her r's. The family also had cats that pleased the future animal lover.

But though it was a simpler era than ours for children-few media distractions easily at hand-it would not be a simple childhood for Brigitte. …

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