|Viva Maria! promo poster (source)|
The plot - which is commendably coherent but as daffy as humanly possible, sees Bardot and Moreau's characters, both named Maria, meeting up in a travelling circus roaming the backblocks of Latin America. Moreau is a traditional singer, while Bardot, a trained explosives expert who is the daughter of an Irish Republican anarchist (!), joins the circus as Moreau's partner to escape the authorities - most of whom she already seems to have blown up at some point in her short but beautiful life.
Quickly the Marias discover that what Bardot's Maria lacks in stage presence, she more than makes up in initiative. The Marias' stage act becomes a saucy French striptease (strictly PG-rated - don't watch if the sight of bloomers distresses you), bringing down the house in every pueblo the circus visits. But soon they are caught up in the dastardly dealings of the cartoonish dictator of San Miguel and his evil and equally OTT henchman Rodriguez. The Marias vow to bring down the hated oppressor of the peasantry and liberate the masses with their own unique brand of steely determination and (literal) drop-dead gorgeousness. As befits a highly-trained and silky-tressed revolutionary, Bardot is allowed to shine as she rolls up her sleeves, pouts coquettishly, and blows up sundry opponents with a swiftly lobbed incendiary. The film also contains the best use of a machinegun in a western setting until The Wild Bunch in 1969. After all, wouldn't you rather see Brigitte and Jeanne cheerily decimate dozens of foes rather than Peckinpah's stubbly heroes?
Aside from the action, Viva Maria is packed full of the silliest, most delightful jokes. In the early scenes of country hysteria as everyone drops everything to see the marvellous mademoiselles perform their dainty striptease, Malle shows a peasant farmer pushing his way to a ticket booth to pay for an entry ticket with a live chicken; cutting to the ticket attendant's side, we see her place the chicken carefully alongside several other live chickens already paid in full. Bardot's supposedly chaste and virginial Maria, now without the protective influence of her father, is encouraged by Moreau's Maria to sample the joys of romance - but being Bardot, one fellow will simply not suffice. She collars three, and returns to the circus the next morning in their carriage, giving each beau a friendly peck on the cheek to bid them adieu, and then proceeds to chalk up their names on the walls of her caravan as a trophy. (Pretty soon she runs out of wall space). And as the circus passes through a parched, dusty desert, the camera pauses for a few seconds as the troupe encounters a previous traveller down the same road - a full horse and rider skeleton fixed in riding posture, with a straw hat perched jauntily atop the man's skull. Just imagine how much effort that must have required for a five second joke!
The trailer below gives a good idea of Viva Maria's charms, but contains an irritating Greek chorus of American voices interspersed amongst the action, so presumably it's from the dubbed American version. Needless to say, if it's even available these days, on no account should you see the dubbed version. It's French or nothing!
Music: Serge Gainsbourg & Brigitte Bardot, 'Bonnie & Clyde' (1968)
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