Beautiful People in European Villas: a Film Genre of Its Own

“And God Created Woman” is not quite — not yet — that kind of film. Its principal characters are not jaded sybarites sunning themselves on the decks of pleasure boats or beside hilltop swimming pools, but rather salt-of-the-earth Frenchmen and women with roots in the populist cinema of the 1930s. Bardot plays Juliette, an 18-year-old orphan who works in a bookstore and scandalizes her hardworking foster mother with her willful, wanton ways. Juliette’s major love interests — two of them, anyway — are brothers whose family owns a modest boatyard.

Still, the movie is a premonition of things to come. The boatyard is not long for the waterfront. Monsieur Carradine, a suave real estate developer and Juliette’s would-be sugar daddy, wants to buy the brothers’ property to make room for a new casino. He is a cynical schemer, but not quite a villain, since his scheming is what enables the regular folk — that is, the ascending movie stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and B.B. herself — to get rich and get laid. It will also make their hometown famous.

As his camera follows Juliette, Vadim almost incidentally articulates what will become standard elements of the St.-Tropez art-film plot: a romantic triangle (though the geometry is more complicated than that) leading toward a climactic burst of violence. A fairly mild burst in this case. A pistol is fired and a face is slapped, but nobody is grievously wounded, and the spectacle ends in laughter rather than tears.

“And God Created Woman” established Vadim as a pop auteur (he would go on to marry Jane Fonda and direct her in “Barbarella”) and Bardot as a global phenomenon. St.-Tropez too. Shortly before production started, a local baker created a confection that would become B.B.’s carbohydrate analog. A disc of brioche split, filled with pastry cream and decorated with faux diamonds of crystallized sugar, the Tarte Tropézienne was blond, voluptuous and perfectly balanced between elegance and vulgarity. The actress professed to adore the cake, according to legend, and they synergized each other’s appeal, remaining emblems of the town ever since.

David Niven and Jean Seberg in Otto Preminger’s 1958 film, “Bonjour Tristesse.”CreditColumbia Pictures/Photofest

Shortly after Bardot and Vadim left, Otto Preminger showed up with Jean Seberg, David Niven and the rights to a French best seller, Françoise Sagan’s “Bonjour Tristesse,” which would become one of the few Hollywood specimens of St.-Tropez cinema. Niven is a playboy with a waterfront villa and a string of female companions, the most devoted of whom is his daughter, played by Seberg in the role that established her, at 19, as a star and a sex symbol. The fact that one leg of the film’s emotional triangle is a father-daughter relationship makes “Bonjour Tristesse” feel at once wholesome and creepy, and its approach to sexuality remains an intriguing blend of late-studio-era Hollywood discretion and European candor. The sex is mostly implied and deniable, but the tragic twist — a fatal, possibly suicidal car crash on one of the region’s treacherous switchback roads — strikes an effective note of cynicism and cruelty amid the amorous, sun-kissed high jinks. The title promises both an antidote to hedonism and a particular form of pleasure. In those films, doing nothing seems to require serious effort. Shallowness has rarely looked so demanding.

ACTUAL FRENCH PEOPLE may go to the Côte d’Azur for sand, surf and oysters and rosé at beachside restaurants. Americans travel to France for cheese, old churches and picturesque landscapes. But some of us are drawn to more esoteric delights, to the grand abstractions that hover in the Mediterranean air. Ennui. Tristesse. Amour. The villa film puts those at our fingertips and before our eyes, embodied in exquisite topographical and physical forms, and offers us fantasies that seem both accessible and impossible. Those people are in their way perfectly ordinary, and it’s not that hard to project oneself into their chic espadrilles. Their villas are, for the most part, borrowed or rented; their leisure is not a noble privilege but an entitlement granted by the French republic. You could go there. Reader: I went there.

But nobody was seduced, betrayed or killed. I can report that St.-Tropez in real life is lovely, and it’s easy to find the beaches and hamlets where the movies were shot. The version in those movies is better, though, because they edit out the modern blemishes — the Burger King and the paintball course on the road into town, the luxury boutiques near the old outdoor market — and, more, because it dreams up an underside, a penalty, a set of moral and emotional risks clinging to the easy delights like sea snails on the rocks.

We might as well admit it: Fun is pretty dull stuff. Do you want to look at pictures of my trip? Of course you don’t. Ennui, on the other hand, is sexy and intriguing, at least if it involves Brigitte Bardot or Alain Delon. The languorous hours under the Mediterranean sun cast a dark spell; the roads are treacherous and the rocks are sharp. The pursuit of pleasure ends in punishment, an outcome that satisfies both our judgmental and our masochistic urges. These idle, gorgeous specters on the screen get what they deserve, which is exactly what we would want if we found ourselves in their place.

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