Published on June 11th, 2018 | by Christopher Cipollini2
Roger Vadim: Chasing Beauty
If any career in international film comes marked with an obsession with la femme, it is that of Roger Vadim. Decried by some as an opportunistic Svengali and praised by others as a cinematic treasure who emphasized the poetic possibilities of the feminine gender, his work was born of the passion and unapologizing decadence of French Avant-garde cinema. With a career spanning 40 years and some 25 pictures to his credit, Vadim carved his niche among directors that have shaped the decades.
Roger Vadim was born Roger Vladimir Plemiannikov on January 26, 1928, in Paris to parents who were of French and Russian decent. His father was a Russian military officer who emigrated from the Ukraine to France. He received French citizenship and became consul of France to Egypt. His mother, Marie-Antoinette was a French writer and essayist. Vadim lived in Alexandria, Africa until the age of nine when he witnessed his father’s death from a heart attack. This misfortune plunged the family into poverty and forced them to return to France. His mother, a socially conscious woman, found work managing a hostel in the French Alps for wayward Jewish families fleeing the Nazis during World War II. The family returned to Paris once the war was over.
After a failed fling with journalism, Vadim aspired to become an actor. He enrolled in Theatre Sarah Bernhardt and studied alongside famed mime Marcel Marceau. There, he befriended Marc Allégret who introduced him to directors, screenwriters, and 16 year old Parisienne Brigitte Bardot. They married two years later, from 1952-1957.
Vadim soon found his true calling behind the camera. At the age of 19, film production enticed young Vadim. He was assistant director for Allégret’s commercially unsuccessful melodrama Blanche Fury (1948). This led to a mildly successful career as a screenwriter for the documentary Le Gouffre de la Pierre Saint-Marti (1953). He worked as assistant director for the romance filmJulietta (1953), starring Jeanne Moreau.
He continued as assistant director to Allégret on the poorly reviewed flick School for Love (1955), but followed with the box office hit Plucking the Daisyaka Mam’selle Striptease (1956), both starring Bardot. Bardot plays a young, fresh faced and seemingly naive bold young heroine who demands sexual freedom against the mores of high buckled society.
After the success of Naughty Girl (1956) with Bardot, he secured financial backing for his directorial debut And God Created Woman (1956), which would become an international box office hit. The film starred Brigitte Bardot, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Curd Jürgens and Isabelle Corey. Many people touted Bardot as his first great discovery. Vadim once said, “It is her [Bardot] very sensuality that people find so provocative.” This established Vadim as a serious director and Bardot as a sex icon. A film about a liberated young woman with little restraint fit perfectly into the themes of a burgeoning sexual revolution. In time, Vadim’s female leads and conquests would be akin to a harem of iconic female actresses.
Vadim married five times. He fathered children with Annette Stroyberg, married 1958-1961; Jane Fonda, married 1965-1973; and Catherine Schneider, married 1975- 1977. He also had relationships with lover Catherine Deneuve and Marie-Christine Barrault (married 1990-2000).
Vadim wedded fitness guru and actress Jane Fonda at the Las Vegas Dunes Hotel and Casino. Fonda, with her blonde locks and sensuous appeal, fit perfectly into Vadim’s ideal of la femme in cinema. France judged the marriage not authentic because of faulty validation at the Los Angeles French consulate. They had a second nuptial in Saint-Ouen-Marchefroy.
InSpirits of the Dead (1968), Fonda plays a cruel and lustful baroness who delights in depravity in her 15th century Hungarian palace. The casting is atypical since her brother, Peter Fonda, plays a young lord who willfully resists her lustful advances. The film also includes French heartthrob Alain Delon. The run of Vadim/Fonda films also include The Game is Over (1966) and the remake of La Ronde (The Circle of Love) (1964).
In 1968, Fonda embarked on her most iconic role in the sci-fi romp Barbarella, also starring Marcel Marceau and Anita Pallenberg, a film based on the comic series about an inter-galactic space siren on a quest for perfect sex.
Despite its obvious camp value, the film secured Fonda’s place as an international sex symbol and brought notoriety to Vadim’s name to the American audience. In the years to come, Fonda newly developed political awareness would become more opposed to the American involvement in the Vietnam War, and her status as a sex symbol conflicted with her burgeoning social consciousness and drove a wedge between herself and Vadim.
Vadim then moved from France to Hollywood to direct All the Pretty Maidsin a Row(1971) with Rock Hudson. He returned to France and reunited with his ex-wife Bardot to make Don Juan (OrIf Don Juan Were a Woman) (1973). The iconic sex symbol appears as a female counterpart to the famed seducer Don Juan. Fonda and Vadim divorced in 1973.
Vadim penned a biography Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda: My Life with the Three Most Beautiful Women in the World, which chronicles his life and affairs with the three sex symbols. The tail end of Vadim’s career was significantly lackluster and included an abysmal American remake of And God Created Woman(1988),which Vadim would later decry. In 1990, he married actress Marie-Christine Barrault. Vadim died of cancer at the age of 72, February 11, 2000.
In spite of what some people would view today as exploitative and immoral in taste, Roger Vadim cemented his place in the hierarchy of French cinema. His had an eye that surveyed females, as would a sculptor or artist, as a veneer of intangible beauty, flaxen curls, and bawdy elegance. To the contemporary eye, films such as And God Created Woman and Barbarellamay seem a bit dated in their pre-women liberation movement approach to femininity. However, it’s without denial that Vadim, with his eye for artistry and desire for an idealized aesthetic, obsessively lived to peruse beauty as he saw it, regardless of society’s high heeled mores. Vadim was a cinematic revolutionist and sought it in his films, his women, and his lovers. Much like his cosmic creation Barbarella, Roger Vadim will forever dwell on from his own place in the celestial heavens.
This article was translated in French by Anne-Cécile Baer Porter.