There has just been a realignment of the cinematic celestial orbs. You remember James Robertson Justice, the rotund, bearded character actor from a myriad British comedies of the 50s and 60s? The one that used to bellow irritably at Dirk Bogarde in various Doctor films? Truly Scrumptious’ Dad in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Yep, that’s the one. Well, I have just watched a film in which James Robertson Justice utters the line “Leave her the fuck alone”! Admittedly it was a subtitle, and I have my doubts that the French words on the soundtrack were not actually spoken by JRJ, but it still came as a bit of a shock to hear such profanity from the lips of the Establishment. It’s OK. I’m fine now.
What was the film? Well, those nice people at Studio Canal have dug deep into their vaults again to prise yet another vintage flick from the fingers of obscurity. This time, it’s Love on a Pillow (Le Repos du Guerrier), a curio from 1962 written and directed by Roger Vadim. Vadim’s first film, …And God Created Woman, had made a star out of his wife Brigitte Bardot, but had precipitated their divorce. This film was their third and final collaboration, made between Vadim fathering a child with Catherine Deneuve and getting married to Jane Fonda. I think we can safely assume that whatever “it” is, Roger Vadim had it.
Love on a Pillow begins with Genevieve (Bardot in prissy, buttoned-up guise) discovering an attempted suicide when she accidentally enters the wrong room in her hotel. Thwarted in his effort to end it all, Renaud (Robert Hossein) decides that maybe being saved by Brigitte Bardot is not such a horrendous fate and declares her to be the owner of his soul. Genevieve quickly recognises in this man an escape from the constrictive life she leads with her fiancé and bourgeoise mother, and embarks on a masochistic relationship.
The loosening of Genevieve’s ties to the bourgeoisie is neatly represented by the state of her hair. Beginning with a tightly bunned-up do, their first meal together has Renaud liberating a lock from its confines. Before you can say “Because you’re worth it”, Genevieve’s tresses are cascading over her shoulders and she’s warming her naked body in front of a crackling log fire. She also adopts a carefree attitude to punctuality and her housekeeping goes to pot. Her mother is naturally appalled. What she would say about the drug-fuelled partner-swapping parties is anyone’s guess.
The film is most interesting in its attempt to shoehorn comment about male-female battlelines into a Bardot vehicle. Renaud treats Genevieve disdainfully, yet each provocation only seems to deepen her desire for him. Bardot was never exactly pin-up girl for the feminist movement, and this film’s depiction of female subservience does run against the grain of the time. At one point a female character is casually but brutally slapped by her boyfriend, an action which the Bardot character thinks is justified.
Defiantly rejecting the stylistic tics of the French New Wave and the working-class preoccupations of the British New Wave, Vadim appears to have taken his inspiration from the louche lifestyle of La Dolce Vita, especially in the party scene that would have become an orgy had it been filmed just a few years later. As it is, we have a bunch of disaffected people getting stoned while listening to languid jazz, pairing off with each other and muttering phrases like “Merde, c’est chouette!” – or, as the subtitles would have it: “Holy shit, it’s awesome!”
Love on a Pillow is not awesome but it is an intriguing attempt to concoct a more mature persona for Bardot, while still emphasising her allure. The script’s stabs at profundity may veer towards pretension, but Vadim fills the film with evidence of his star’s gorgeousness, and the photography has that irresistible glossy sheen so characteristic of the 60s. Superficial pleasures certainly, but pleasures nonetheless. Although perhaps less so for Germaine Greer.
Love on a Pillow is available on DVD now. Contributor Fintan McDonagh can be followed on Twitter @fintalloneword.