Viva Maria!

Viva Maria!


Reviewed by: Chris

Louis Malle made a total of four films with Jeanne Moreau, and they couldn’t be more different. He established critical acclaim for both of them with Lift To The Scaffold, then a ban for the amorous Les Amants. A dark meditation came five years later with The Fire Within, followed almost immediately by this highly commercial, enjoyable, lightweight romp.

Viva Maria! is a joyous celebration of female bonding across early twentieth century Mexico as the two Marias – played by Jeanne Moreau and Bridget Bardot – right wrongs, take their fill of life and love, lead a revolution, blow things up, invent striptease, and help men to shoot round corners.

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We meet the first Maria while she is still a child. Before the opening credits have finished, she has gaily helped Dad blow up the English many times. Ireland 1891. London 1894. Gibraltar 1901. Finally in Central America she has to blow up Dad while the baddies are still shooting him on the bridge. Undeterred, she continues alone, now a young woman (in the form of tomboy Bridget Bardot), catching a train on the run as we catch the last of the opening titles. It was a hectic race. As she finally sits down on the tail of the train we enjoy her sigh of exertion and relief.

Before long, Bardot Maria has teamed up with travelling singer, Moreau Maria – whom she holds at knifepoint before they become bosom buddies. The next visual gasp comes as Bardot takes off her cap – a moment Malle milks for all it is worth. Somehow concealed under the boyish hat, long golden locks fall down. Bardot sheds her androgynous Calamity Jane look for full-on pout and the camera lingers knowingly. This pistol-totin’ gal will bed whoever takes her fancy and chalk their names up on the inside wall of the wagon. It is the classic Bardot imagery – that inspired both ‘bardolâtrie’ and the comments of noted feminist Simone de Beauvoir defending her as a manifestation of a new, artifice-free type of femininity, “as much a hunter as she is a prey.”

During the tours of the musical theatre circus, the pair perform a number where an accidentally ripped dress leads them to accidentally invent striptease. Although they only bare down to their knickerbockers, the show is a smash hit, considerably raising the troupe’s profile and income.

By this point, silly but hilariously executed gags have become well-entrenched. Men pay to see the show with chickens if they have no money. English colonials speak with frightfully proper accents and discuss tea. The two girls join the revolution after Bardot, who has a common sense objection to injustice, takes a pot shot at a local bad guy chief. (St Miguel is owned by four families – details are hazy – presumably the English stay in the background drinking tea and the Catholic Church stays with whoever’s winning.) The Marias are being worshipped by the populace (due to another hilarious accident) and are put to the rack – the Catholic Inquisition having apparently stayed over a few centuries in Mexico rather than returning to Spain. The Mexican Inquisition is linked visually to that other popular pogrom, the Klu Klux Klan.

Viva Maria! almost sags in the middle from the weight of non-stop action. It is a great tribute to Malle’s skill that everything has gone so perfectly when so much could easily have gone wrong. But just as it starts to get a bit samey, Moreau surprises everyone, audience and other characters alike, by a big soliloquy after the death of her hunky proletariat lover. “It’s her big scene,” comments one of the locals as Moreau descends the stairs with Shakespearean majesty. Perhaps it was this scene that clinched her Bafta in a close race with Bardot that year.

The last half proves a roller coaster of inventive explosions and gags that keep us endlessly on the edge of our seat. Viva Maria! is straight entertainment with no attempt to be deep and meaningful. Yet, unlike many lightweight mainstream films, its dominant ideologies are refreshingly subversive.

Reviewed on: 23 Jun 2008
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Malle's comic western starring Bardot and Moreau as strip-tease pioneers.

Director: Louis Malle

Writer: Louis Malle, Jean-Claude Carrière

Starring: Brigitte Bardot, Jeanne Moreau, Paulette Dubost, Claudio Brook, Carlos López Moctezuma, Poldo Bendandi, Gregor von Rezzori, Francisco Reiguera, Jonathan Eden, Roberto Pedret, José Ángel Espinosa 'Ferrusquilla'

Year: 1965

Runtime: 122 minutes

Country: France, Italy


EIFF 2008

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