Viva Maria was not as much fun to make as most people think it is to see. It was so hyped by the French media. I’ve always shot my films in complete isolation. There isn’t usually even a press release. I try not to talk to anybody until the film is finished. When I got on the set on the first day of shooting there were something like seventy journalists. Not only the French press, but the American press, the Italian press — it was ridiculous. In the months before we started they’d built up this rivalry between Moreau and Bardot; there were rumours in the press that they hated each other, which was completely untrue. They presented it as a duel between the two — ‘Who was going to win?’ — which of course was not what the film was about at all. It was about friendship — a kind of rivalry, but based on friendship.
So, it created an almost unbearable atmosphere, and shooting was very hard. Something I’ve experienced a few times is that when you have a big budget, you have less freedom because, eventually, you find out that big as the budget is, it’s not enough. It didn’t matter if a film like Feu follet went over schedule because it was not expensive. But when I was shooting Viva Maria we had so many different locations all over Mexico, we had a huge crew, the logistics were impossible. Jeanne and Brigitte would take turns getting sick. We had to reschedule constantly. But writing the screenplay with Jean-Claude Carrière was great fun.
Like many others of my generation, I’d been a great fan of American cinema of that period, the 1940s and 1950s. Of course, the Western was a very cherished genre for us. My idea was to put two women in a situation where in Hollywood films it’s always two men, two buddies – I think the best example was Vera Cruz. And when I first discussed it with Carrière, I said to him, ‘You remember Vera Cruz?’ and he said, ‘Of course.’ We thought it could be fun to put Bardot and Moreau in the same situation as Cooper and Lancaster in Vera Cruz and to do a pastiche of those buddy films. We started from that.
Both of us realized that a very important part of our childhood had been those turn-of-the-century magazines published in books, like Le Monde illustré and Le Journal des voyages. They were in my family’s attic, dozens of them. I still have some of them, as a matter of fact. And they had these beautiful engravings. For instance, there were stories of adolescents lost in the Amazon, with great illustrations of children in the jungle surrounded by all kinds of dangerous animals. These images had been the stuff of our childhood fantasies, so we looked at these books again; took our inspiration from them.
The problem I had with Viva Maria during the shooting stems directly from that: trying to combine an evocation of childhood fantasies with a pastiche of traditional adventure films. Not surprisingly, what happened was it became a big Scope film. I was carried away, and this pastiche of an adventure film eventually becomes really an adventure film, with an enormous number of extras. And it lost a bit of its bite. Some of it is very funny; in a way, it has certain aspects of Zazie, some of the absurd gags, but it was never meant to be realistic – more a projection of the imagination. Ideally, I was hoping the spectator would see it with the wonderment of the child I was when I was looking at those books. But it turned into something else; floating between genres, it was trying to do too many different things.
Some of the gags were thin, but I saw it again recently, after all these years, and enjoyed it – more than I expected. It was very successful commercially, except in the US, where it flopped. In the socialist countries, the picture was incredibly well received. It was taken as a metaphor for Stalinism; Fassbinder explained to me once that at Berlin University they were fascinated by the film. It was at the time of those radical student movements, and they saw in the heroines the two different approaches to revolution. Bardot is action – ‘Let’s do it’, armed struggle, terrorism. The other one, Moreau, tries to achieve her goals legally, to change society without violence. This was, of course, way beyond my expectations of how it would be perceived.
But in terms of the evolution of my work, it was a bit of a regression compared to Feu follet, because of all the unfavourable circumstances. I was not completely in control, and I had to finish a scene absolutely since the whole show was supposed to move to the next location. Every day Henri Decaé and I would be the first ones on the set, and we would look at the sky, which was desperately blue – the very hard light was a problem for the girls. Ideally, we should have been able to shoot early morning and late afternoon, but we always ended up shooting the main scene with the sun right at its zenith. I always had to adjust and compromise. Actually I had a better time with the screenplay than with the shooting of the film. When we were writing it, I had great ambitions. What I was trying to do was more complicated than it looked like when it was finished.
It’s one of my films that I wish I could remake, because I know it could have worked much better. We were in a very dangerous area: it was comedy, but it was easy not to perceive it as comedy. For instance, there was a scene where Jeanne Moreau was declaiming to the Mexican peasants that speech from Julius Caesar – ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’. The humour didn’t come through. And I have to blame myself, because it was not quite clear what it was about. It was funnier in the script than it was in the film. The audience either didn’t get it or took it seriously. That’s the danger of pastiche. It’s a very risky genre. Yet if you see it today, Viva Maria has great moments. It is funny and inventive and the two girls are excellent. I wish it could be re-released.
Although it works better, I had a little bit of the same problem with Milou. A lot of people took Milou much more seriously than was intended; it was deliberately not realistic, with the appearances of the dead grandmother, for instance. If I was to do it again I would make it on a smaller scale, because of the humour and the ferocity of some of the jokes. At one point before the shooting, when both actresses and their agents were being very difficult, and I thought I was going to lose them, or one of them, I got fed up and suggested to United Artists, who were financing it, that we switch to the English language and do it with Julie Christie and Sarah Miles. They were really exciting young actresses, and not yet stars. I think it would have worked better but the UA executives didn’t want to hear about it.
They thought that it was going to be a big commercial hit in America and they decided to go for dubbing. They opened it in English with very mediocre dubbing. I was very unhappy with the voices — especially the actress who dubbed Bardot — and I lost control. It failed completely when it opened in America. They had Brigitte Bardot come over. She was very big then. I remember the opening night. They had publicized that she was going to be there, the sex symbol of the 1960s, and there was a near-riot outside the theatre. All this hoopla didn’t help the picture. Fortunately, it worked very well in the rest of the world. When I look back on Viva Maria, I can see that, once more, I could not resist a challenge: I was the only one who could put Bardot and Moreau together in a film and make it work. I would never do it again, much as I like them. It transformed the film into something else.
In an open-air cinema in Kerkyra, in a courtyard in Akadimias, you’re laughing your head off to the foolery in Louis Malle’s Viva Maria! You’re sitting in a group with the whole troop of your summer household: your hosts at their house in Kalami, the Kluge family—Dieter, the father, and his wife Helga; the twins, Jürgen and Ulla, and their sister Veronika; Axel, Ulla’s boyfriend, and Rudi, Veronika’s—and your father and Pascale. It’s three months since Valeria left for Australia. And you too are reaching for distant shores: You’re engaged in a quest to discover through sex the depths of yourself.
In a tavern in San Miguel, somewhere in Central America, a troupe of travelling entertainers performs their vaudeville show. A magician conjures a dove from a scarf; as it flies above the boisterous crowd, a drinker pulls out his pistol and shoots it down. You break into hysterics, just as you do at all the other gags in this motley adventure movie. No-one else laughs as hard as you, but no-one else (except Jürgen, of course) has made love all afternoon: You need to come down from your high.
The gags give you the occasion, but release-through-laughter is not all you get from Viva Maria! No, you’re also fascinated by the two Marias, delighting in their complicity while wondering about their different ways of being a woman: Jeanne Moreau holding out for the ideal of love, Brigitte Bardot seizing the day; one opting for wiliness and passivity, the other for forthrightness and risk. And then, too, the film offers you a space to reflect on political violence, so inconsequential in the movie and so bloody and incendiary outside. When the film is over, you don’t ride back to Kalami with Jürgen as you’d come with him to Kerkyra: You are rigourous about keeping your nights separate from your days—that’s part of what makes your experience in Corfu so exciting.
Bardot & Moreau Sing ‘Les petites femmes de Paris’ from ‘Viva Maria!’ Louis Malle