One of Louis Malle’s strangest, most eccentric films, “Viva Maria!” is a visually intriguing satirical comedy-adventure, co-writteb by him and Jean-Claude Carriere (who wrote many screenplay for Luis Bunuel).
“Viva Maria!” is mostly noted for pairing French cinema’s most famous women at the time: Sex icon Brigitte Bardot (“And God Created Woman,” “Contempt”) and acclaimed actress Jeanne Moreau, best know for Truffaut’s 1961 “Jules and Jim,” but who had appeared successfully in Malle’s early features (see below).
The on-screen rivalrly between the two stars, which the narrative explores explicitly as one of ts themes, also extended to off-screen with reprotedly tempestuous bursts of temper on the set.
The international cast of the film, which was largely shot in Mexico, also includes American George Hamilton as Florès, a revolutionary leader.
The narrative is based on two gimmicks: The two women are both named Marie, though later on they are referred to as “Maria,” and they both are performers who get involved in chaotic political revolutions.
Set circa 1907, the story takes place in a fictitious Central American country called San Miguel. The tale begins through an accidental meeting between two sexy women. Maria II (Brigitte Bardot), the daughter of an Irish terrorist, meets Maria I (Jeanne Moreau), the singer of a circus. After her father dies, Maria II hides in the circus where she sees Maria I’s partner commit suicide, caused by a failed love affair.
Joining forces, the two Marias form a theatrical team. In her debut as a singer Maria II “accidentally” invents striptease, an action that immediately makes the circus extremely popular.
Things get melodramatic when the Marias meet Florès (George Hamilton), a socialist revolutionary who invites them to join his cause, a revolution against “The Dictador” (José Ángel Espinoza). Florès is soon shot, but on his deathbed, he asks the femmes promise him that they would carry through with his cause.
The ensuing byzantine plot thenchronicles how the women create a peasant army, and then organize a quasi-Socialist state. Along the way, there are combats, shootings, sight gags, love affairs, and comic actions–and other nonsense.
Preparing to take the capital city, the Marias are captured by Catholics, who fear the consequences of a revolution, and wish to stop the masses from turning the women into idols and saints. After a bungled attempt to torture them (the equipment is too old to function properly) the Marias are rescued by their victorious army.
In the last scene, informed by a title cared, “And then they went back to Europe,” we see the two femmes, now wearing dark-hair to look more more “authentic,” in a Parisian club, where they recreate their adventures as a successful musical version of the real revolutions in which they had participated.
Was the whole thing a reverie, a staged spectacle? It’s up to the viewers to decide.
Too bad that the film overextends its welcome by at least 20 minutes and last two reels are particularly repetitive.
The dialogue is in English, French, Spanish, and Dutch, depending on the nationality of the actor. The film, which was released in both French and an English-dubbed version, was popular in Europe. However, dismissed by most American critics as visually spectacular but nonsensical, “Viva Maria! was a commercial flop in the U.S.
Maria I (Brigitte Bardot)
Maria II (Jeanne Moreau)
Mme Diogène (Paulette Dubost)
Great Rodolfo (Claudio Brook)
Rodríguez (Carlos López Moctezuma)
Werher (Poldo Bendandi)
Flores (George Hamilton)
Running time: 119 Minutes
About Louis Malle (1932-1994)
Born in 1932, Louis Malle began his career with Jacques‑Yves Cousteau, working on the celebrated underwater documentary Le Monde de Silence/The Silent World (1956). Malle also directed two shorts and served as Robert Bresson’s assistant on Un Condamne a Mort s’est echappe/A Man Escaped (1956) before making his first solo feature as a director, Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud/ Elevator to the Gallows (1957) a stylish psychological thriller noted for Henri Dacae’s darkly atmospheric photography of Paris. The film, which showcased the talent of Jeanne Moreau, enjoyed considerable success and earned for Malle the coveted Prix Delluc.
Malle’s next film, Les Amants/The Lovers (1958), caused much controversy because of its overly explicit sexuality. It became a big commercial hit, internationally establishing the reputations of both its director and star, again Jeanne Moreau. The lyrical love scenes and fluid tracking shots that distinguished this film at the time of its first showing remain more memorable than its intended comment on the vacuity of the French bourgeoisie. The film won the Special Jury Prize at Venice.
Following a change‑of‑pace production, the frivolous and baffling Zazie dans le Metro/Zazie (1960), Malle turned out Vie privee/A Very Private Affair (1962), a study of the rise of a film star, starring Brigitte Bardot in a fictionalized biography.
Demonstrating his versatility and the broad range of his concerns and style, Malle next made Le Feu Follet/The Fire Within (1963), a somber, keenly observed, sensitively told story of the last few days in the life of a suicidal alcoholic.