Before he had reached the age of thirty, French director Louis Malle (born in 1932) had already emerged as one of his country’s most critically acclaimed and internationally recognized filmmakers on the basis of his first three films – The Oscar®-winning documentary, The Silent World (1956), which he co-directed with Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the atmospheric noir Elevator to the Gallows (1958), and the controversial adultery drama, The Lovers (1958). Many film critics felt that his fourth film, Zazie dans le metro (1960), based on the novel by Raymond Queneau, was his most adventurous and impressive work to date but it failed to generate ticket sales and was a costly failure. Due to this, Malle felt pressured to make a more commercial feature and the result was A Very Private Affair (1962, French title Vie privée), starring Brigitte Bardot.
At the time, Bardot was still the most popular and stalked celebrity subject of every newspaper, magazine and paparazzi in Europe, if not the world. Ever since Roger Vadim’s …And God Created Woman (1956) had transformed her into a global sex symbol and superstar, Bardot’s participation in almost any film was seen as some kind of box office insurance. A Very Private Affair, however, was not a personal project for Malle but was brought to him by producer Christine Gouze-Renal, who initially wanted to star Bardot in a contemporary remake of Noel Coward’s Private Lives from a screenplay by Henri Jeanson. Malle nixed this idea but had another suggestion. “I thought it might be interesting,” he said (in Malle on Malle), “to try to re-create in the film the strange social phenomenon that Brigitte Bardot had become, the sex object who had become an object of scandal. In her way she was a pioneer of the feminist movement. She was not political, but she had decided to live her life as a man might; to be the equal of men on every level.”
Working with Jean Ferry and Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Malle fashioned a screenplay inspired by Bardot’s own life and career that was autobiographical in nature in regards to some incidents and details. Bardot would later state that A Very Private Affair recreated “important moments of my life. I had a hard time with some episodes that were still too painful for me at the time…There is a lot of truth, somewhat fictionalized, but the basis of the events [in the film] remains true” (from The Films of Louis Malle: A Critical Analysis by Nathan Southern with Jacques Weissgerber).
Although Malle may have been aiming for a cinematic investigation of Bardot’s persona and popularity, the screenplay for A Very Private Affair more closely resembles a film industry exposé in the manner of a glossy melodrama like The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Jill, the central character played by Bardot, is an aspiring ballerina with a crush on Fabio (Marcello Mastroianni), an Italian art book publisher, who is married to her friend Carla (Ursula Kubler). After Jill moves to Paris, she pursues a career in modeling and is “discovered” by a movie producer who transforms her into a sexy screen siren. Stardom has its price, however, and Jill resorts to a disguise to avoid being mobbed by fans and reporters. It is at this point in her career that she encounters Fabio again, now divorced, and begins a passionate affair with him. She follows him to the annual Spoleto festival in Italy where Fabio has agreed to direct a theatrical production but Jill’s attempts to keep a low profile and avoid the press has tragic consequences.
Malle seemed to realize early in pre-production that A Very Private Affair was going to be problematic. “The screenplay turned out to be more difficult than I expected,” the director recalled. “But we had a starting date, a deadline, because Bardot was doing something afterwards. So when we started shooting we were not really ready, and the script was not even finished. I was working at night on the ending with Jean-Paul Rappeneau. Since we shot more or less in sequence we could do that, but it was very dangerous. I had almost no time for the casting, so the supporting cast ended up being quite weak.” Another major problem with A Very Private Affair is the complete lack of chemistry between Bardot and her co-star Marcello Mastroianni. The two actors simply didn’t like each other and had several arguments on the set. Malle said, “The film was supposed to have lyrical love scenes between two actors who hardly spoke to each other and behaved like strangers on the set. I remember saying at the time, ‘I don’t think I’m a good enough director to make it work, to make believe on the screen that people are madly in love with each other when they actually hate each other in real life.'”
It also didn’t help that Mastroianni’s voice was dubbed by a French actor for the final release version. Was it because the actor wasn’t confident enough to speak in French or simply didn’t know the language?
Not everything was a disaster though, for A Very Private Affair features the dazzling cinematography of Henri Decae and the visual splendors of such tourist destinations as Lake Geneva (where the first part of the film takes place), Paris and Spoleto. Despite Malle’s difficulties in making the movie, he actually enjoyed shooting the Spoleto sequences, noting, “The last part is partly improvised…it was the first time I filmed without being tense…And that’s when things started to happen; my shots suddenly became organic, sensual. I felt suddenly better and the script worked better. It was an important step for me. Many times I’ve remembered the end of the shooting of Vie privée and tried to arrive at this state of grace. Of course, it came from the fact that I had written off the film.”
A Very Private Affair proved to be a low point in Malle’s early career; it was attacked by the critics and avoided by the public. At least his previous film Zazie dans le Metro was considered an artistic triumph by most reviewers but almost everyone criticized A Very Private Affair for its shallowness and the lackluster performances of Bardot and Mastroianni. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “Perhaps if you’re passionately interested in the career of Brigitte Bardot, in Bardot herself, or just in looking at some handsome Swiss and Italian scenery, you may find enough to amuse you in Miss Bardot’s new film, A Very Private Affair….But, alas, what is supposed to pass for drama in this magnificently photographed film is not only infinitesimal but is also deplorably banal. And the manner in which Louis Malle has chosen to present it–a choppy, elusive montage style — is almost as oblique and bewildering as that of Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Regarding Bardot’s performance, he took a more insulting tone: “She slops through the film in slacks and scanties, with her hair looking like a sheep dog’s head and an expression of petulance (or boredom) on what you can see of her puffy little face. The unspoken irony of the picture is that an actress who is so poor at her job should be the representation of the bitterness of fame in such a film.”
It goes without saying that A Very Private Affair was a disappointment for Bardot and Mastroianni as well. Bardot later reflected, “Vie privée should have been a good film but I don’t think it will be a turning-point in my career. I’ve seen enough turning-points anyway – Ring Around the Moon, …And God Created Woman, In Case of Adversity, La Vérité – I’d like a turning-point in real life, which has become absolutely impossible. There is too big a gap between what I am and what people think I am.” Mastroianni’s reaction to the movie was more a case of his antipathy toward the actress. According to biographer Glenys Roberts in Bardot, “Mastroianni said he was very sorry for the schizophrenic actress whose two personalities terrorized each other. He was also sorry that he had ever made the film. He didn’t go to the premiere and he didn’t want to be associated with the publicity. He went further and said he never intended to make another film outside Italy. As for BB? What did he think of her? She was simply pleasant. It was a very anodyne description.”
Malle always admitted that A Very Private Affair was a mistake and so was Crackers (1984), his remake of Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), both of which were projects that he didn’t initiate but were brought to him. Yet, in later years, Malle was more generous to A Very Private Affair, saying “When you look at the film today, the very beginning is good, I suppose; it holds together until she becomes a star, and then the end in Spoleto. Somebody told me the other day that it has a Douglas Sirk quality. It functions on a level where lyricism has little to do with reality.” Interestingly enough, Malle would work with Bardot two more times. His period costume adventure/musical Viva Maria! (1965) paired Bardot with Jeanne Moreau as entertainers in Central America who get swept up in a revolution. It was a much happier experience and the result is a high spirited, colorful and amusing showcase for the two French actresses. Then, in 1968, Malle joined Roger Vadim and Federico Fellini as contributors to the horror anthology film, Spirits of the Dead, based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Malle’s segment, based on Poe’s William Wilson, featured Alain Delon as a cruel soldier who has been shadowed by his doppelganger all of his life. Bardot is cast in a supporting role (wearing a black wig) as Giuseppina, a socialite who loses a card game to Delon (he cheats) and is whipped per the terms of their wager. Spirits of the Dead received mixed reviews from critics with the majority singling out Fellini’s fantastical adaptation of Toby Damnit as the best episode but Malle’s contribution is genuinely haunting and deserves a second look. And Delon and Bardot, in particular, are mesmerizing into their encounter.
A Very Private Affair had previously been released on VHS by MGM back in 1993 and is still available through Amazon but I suspect that some distributor will release the film on DVD/Blu-Ray at some point. It certainly deserves a look if only to gaze upon BB at the height of her fame.
*This is an updated and revised version of an article that first appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
Other websites of interest: