Directors>: Roger Vadim, Jean Aurel, and Jack Dunn Trop
Celebrating Bastille Day: French Films All Week
By Roderick Heath
I admit that, Godard’s Contempt (1963) aside, I know the flaxen-haired stack of Gallic loveliness known as Bridget Bardot better as occasional back-up singer for Serge Gainsbourg and a latter-day xenophobic pest than as an actress. Watching her in action in Please Not Now, the kind of saucy comedy that was her stock in trade, she’s like some impossibly gorgeous sprite imbued with the wits of a fair to average comedienne. Please Not Now is spun out of the very concept of Bardot clutching a rifle with intent to kill as utterly and irredeemably, lovably absurd. At least, it was lovably absurd 40 years prior to her being convicted five times for hate speech.
The plot, if it’s at all worth recounting, presents for our consideration one Sophie, a variety of screen specimen long familiar to moviegoers and now ennobled by The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin with the tag “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”—that variety of gorgeous movie female whose antics would be considered signs of mental illness in a less gorgeous non-movie female. Sophie’s excuse is that she’s Corsican—in the film’s terms, a hick—and relatively new to the big city of Paris, through which she drives in her crummy car in a credit sequence that suggests Jacques Tati on speed, set to a jaunty Flamenco version of “La Bamba” that recurs constantly throughout the film. Sophie is a model, natch, whose boyfriend, Philippe (Jacques Riberolles), is an advertising photographer. When she’s late for a shoot after hunting high and low for an apartment for them to share, eager to push along their floundering relationship, he berates her for having cost him a lucrative American contract. When he is called away, Sophie follows him out and sees him kissing a woman in a parked car.
This woman is Barbara Wilbury (Joséphine James), heir to half the abattoirs in Chicago (“She look like someone who enjoys killing animals!” Sophie fumes). Sophie follows Philippe to the lovers’ rendezvous in a café, and, watched by two skylarking lads with nothing better to do than sit and ogle, Alain (Michel Subor) and Claude (Claude Brasseur), presents Philippe with the goodbye present of a cake in the face. Alain and Claude immediately see a chance to get with the stunning blonde, but Alain, the shyer of the pair, sends Claude to talk to her. He convinces her to further her revenge on Philippe by hanging out with them.
To decide which of them will have the pleasure of being her date for the evening, the two men challenge each other to trial by go-kart. Sophie joins the race, and wins. Asking her rival beaux what they do, they inform her they’re surgeons (“The crap one hears!” murmurs an eavesdropper). Unable to shake the pair, who drop her off at her apartment, Sophie asks them if they want to see her in a bikini. When they answer in the affirmative, Sophie tries to point out a bill poster on a nearby wall emblazoned with that image, but it’s been covered by another poster. When Claude climbs up to try to tear the offending, concealing poster off, he’s arrested. Alain manages to manoeuvre himself into Sophie’s room, but Sophie’s sufficiently charmed by him to deny him the chance of sleeping with her: she’d feel like she was cheating rather than getting revenge on Philippe. No, she decides, the only way out of her predicament is to imitate the example of her Corsican grandmother, Carlotta—murder the other woman.
Alain’s so depressed the next day over the idea he’ll have to wait 20 years for Sophie to get out of prison before their next date, he prepares the wrong leg of his patient (yes, he and Claude really are surgeons), and then decides to warn Philippe of Sophie’s intentions. Philippe laughs this off until he realises she’s taken a working rifle that was being used as a prop from the studio, and she’s sitting in her car waiting for Barbara to show up. Philippe and Barbara sneak out, and Alain convinces Sophie a better course of action will be to use him as a prop to spark jealousy in Philippe. They follow the runaway lovebirds to Villars de Lans, where they can’t afford to stay any longer than a few days, and get themselves installed in room 12A, a storeroom through which hotel employees waltz all day. Alain tries to talk Philippe into acting perturbed to satisfy Sophie’s ego, but Sophie escapes them on a bobsled, intending to ambush Barbara, setting a new course record in the process.
What you’ve read so far will confirm that this is hardly a hard, dangerous noir film designed to elucidate the darker corners of human nature and the agonies of existence; all this film really wants to do is elucidate the contours of Bardot’s body and send its audience home happy. Keeping that in mind, it ought to be possible to keep this film’s fair wit and slick, stylish, occasionally disjointed charms in perspective. If ever polyester was translated into the cinematic medium, it was in the directorial technique of Vadim; sleek, modern, and bogus (as for the other two credited directors, Aurel was a writer just beginning a long directorial career, and Tropp never had another directing credit). Although scholars of the Nouvelle Vague don’t like to admit it, Vadim was the first of the young directors of that movement to prove commercial viability, with Et Dieu…crea la femme (1956), which made Bardot the full-cream French answer to Marilyn Monroe. And yet, in this film, it’s hard to see why Bardot was often characterised as the the raciest creature on the block at the time, because for all her willing disrobings, her sexuality is here free of threat or mystery.
Vadim worked more like a fashion photographer or high-end retail salesman that a filmmaker. His employment of New Wavey techniques, like the sped-up opening or the witty split-screen effect that contrasts two arguing couples, have more the flavour of something used to sell rather than perturb, which perhaps is why Please Not Now possesses the perfect, distanced allure of retro advertising. What Vadim is selling is Bardot, banking on her adorability of a face smudged by soot, wearing a crash helmet or pith helmet or snow-bunny fur cap. His work here indicates the level of influence Vadim may have had, quite distinct from that of his more feted French fellows, on the comedies that flourished over the next decade, including the likes of The Pink Panther (1963) and What’s New, Pussycat? (1966), with their funny, zippy cars and fashion plate heroines.
A great asset of technical distinction displayed by Please Not Now is the utterly gorgeous widescreen cinematography of Robert Lefebvre. Like most halfway decent romantic comedies, the narrative is made tense by a strong dash of social anxiety, which here manifests in the initially realistic mise-en-scène of the Paris scenes, and some wry and likeably down-to-earth observations on being young, go-get-em, and yet rather poor in the modern world: Sophie and Alain must resort to stealing food from the dumb waiter, Sophie accuses Philippe of only wanting Barbara’s money, and Sophie and Alain find perfection in dancing in their storeroom space to the strains of a band in another room playing, yes, “La Bamba.” It’s a pity then that the film throws in anything, from a lovable St. Bernard to a hypnotist who can levitate people, to keep things bouncy. Sophie’s a ludicrous, but entertaining character; when Alain asks her offhandedly if she was the same as a child, she answers laughingly, “No, back then I was wild and unpredictable! How much we change!”
Vadim later served up the famous but disappointing stab at pop scifi, Barbarella (1967). That film’s opening tease of Jane Fonda stripping in zero gravity is predicted here by the sequence that came sufficiently early in the 1960s to set tongues wagging, in which Alain, watching a cabaret dancer, zones out and imagines Sophie emerging from a bath and gyrating in her birthday suit behind some artfully employed frosted glass screens, as an accompanying mob of musicians become more and more excited. As inane as it is, one has to admire Vadim’s artful contrivance, as Alain’s distraction is signaled by the smoke of his cigarette beginning to billow in a voodoo cloud, and the musicians’ increasingly lustful excitement at Bardot’s flashing staged like a kitsch-fest mating of I Walked with a Zombie and Hugh Hefner in a shower commercial.
Alhough it surely sports some dated male-female relations, Please Not Now indicates the plot arcs of a thousand rom coms in subsequent decades. It’s hard to imagine one of the grotesque monstrosities that pass for the genre today that would let its straying male or interloping rich bitch off so easily, and indeed, understandingly. Philippe proves to be a fairly decent guy, as he and Alain, spurned by both Sophie and Barbara, get drunk and determine to persuade their women of their ardor in more forceful terms, with Alain taming Sophie using her own shotgun. Perhaps because Vadim and Bardot’s marriage had ended four years earlier, Please Not Now just wants everyone to get along and find their perfect match—even if it takes force of arms to accomplish it. l