BB’s bare cheek
God may have created woman but the Devil invented Brigitte Bardot. Well, that’s what the publicity said, and there are countless men who might agree. Not least actor Mike Sarne, as Andy Martin reveals
THIRTY years ago, in the second week of September 1966, Mike Same had carnal knowledge of Brigitte Bardot. Technically, she was married to “Count” Gunther Sachs – multi-millionaire German playboy, scion of the Opel motor dynasty and European bobsleigh champion of1958. Sarne, a young singer and actor, was a London University drop-out. The quintessential woman of the generation between Monroe and Madonna had just got back from her honeymoon in Tahiti. It was the sexual equivalent of England beating West Germany in the World Cup. In many ways Sarne’s fate reflects the rise and fall of the national football team. Now Bardot has had her cruellest revenge yet on Sarne – she has cut him out of her life for the second time.
Martyrdom is the keynote of Bardot’s recently published memoirs, Initiales BB. Hers rather than Sarne’s. She rectifies her
early experiences in the light of her later ecological priorities – the female predator (which is how she was originally hymned by Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras), going through men like a monkey through a bunch of bananas, is reincarnated as prey, an endangered species, a wounded animal pursued by slavering hounds in the shape of lovers and lensmen. And yet all the evidence – even in her own book – suggests she was not so much victim as victimiser, a woman of power who left the men around her paralysed. It is more a case of woman bites dog.
There is a touch of the sadist about Bardot, as she savours the suffering of her ex-lovers. “The men who shared my life,
whether singers, actors, playboys, painters or sculptors, all had their moment of glory. They all believed it was due to themselves alone and were cruelly disappointed when they saw their glory pass to their successor and they were abandoned to their sad fate.”
The happy few who lived out the classic scenario have tended to come to an unhappy end, as if they had dared to look upon the tomb of Tutankhamun or witness the assassination of JFK. Although Bardot’s bad films are legion, she worked with some of the best directors of the age. It would be an exaggeration, but only a slight one, to say they would never work again. Jean-Luc Godard started committing a protracted cinematic suicide after Le Mepris in 1963. Rene Clair’s glorious career (including A Nous la Liberte and Sous les Toits de Paris) took a dive after making Les Grandes Manoeuvres with her in 1955. For Clouzot (La Verite) and Duvivier (La Femme et le Pantin) she was, similarly, the kiss of death. Perhaps only Louis Malle (Vie Privee and Viva Maria!) truly escaped unscathed. But the case of Roger Vadim is the most exemplary.
The turning point was And God Created Woman. “But,” added the publicity posters of the time, “the Devil [ie, Vadim] invented Bardot.” Though made in 1956, it anticipated the moral and stylistic revolution of the 1960s and took the US by storm. But Vadim was condemned by its success to re-make the same film over and over again, like a drunk telling the same joke. It became progressively less funny as it went on, hitting an all-time low with the abysmal Don Juan in 1973, or If Don Juan Were A Woman, in which Bardot acts out a half-hearted lesbian scene with Jane Birkin. And matrimonially the story is a strangely parallel one, as the title of one of his collections of memoirs Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda, suggests: he was doomed to go on marrying his archetype ever after Bardot traded him in for Jean-Louis Trintignant. Perhaps the most publicly crucified of all Bardot’s partners was Jacques Charrier, one of the many co-stars who made the transition to off-screen romantic lead. She never forgave him for fathering a child upon her and promptly ditched both of them. Now both Charrier and their son Nicholas, 36, are suing her for invasion of privacy and trying to have the original memoirs pulped, until the offending pages are deleted.
“You can’t have for yourself what belongs to the whole of the country,” Charrier once remarked, “whether it is Brigitte Bardot or Camembert cheese.” Less philosophical after visiting the set and watching his wife make love to four different men auditioning for her next mm, Charrier demanded she quit, then took to brawling with Sami Frey, her next co-star and lover. He suffered nervous breakdowns and twice attempted suicide while on National Service; he had to be kicked out of the army in the end, with the shameful verdict on his record of “inapte à servir”.
Mike Sarne’s-record was totally non-military, a No 1 hit, Come Outside, in which he sweet-talks a woman (Wendy Richards) into going outside to look at the moon with him. And he successfully applied his technique to Bardot while playing the bit-part of a phallocentric photographer in the film Two Weeks in September.
The film itself is an obvious allegory of her marriage to Sachs, in which a wedding-dress is torn from her throbbing body. It required her to spend two weeks in inadequate clothing ona blasted beach in September in East Lothian. She could have worn a cardigan but she didn’t like cardigans and took to wrapping Sarne around her instead.
Sarne got a lot of mileage out of the short-lived liaison, in which he may even have lured Bardot back to his pad in Chiswick High Street. But he got his comeuppance in a big way. Having failed to make The Road to St Tropez he was given the job of directing Raquel Welch in the unintentional disaster movie, Myra Breckinridge, in 1970. Thereafter his graph describes a descending arc, dissolving into a long struggle to make, remake, release and re-release a low-budget update of Romeo and Juliet – with tragic echoes of Sarne and Bardot – called The Punk and the Princess.
Out of the entire 557 pages of Initiales BB, not a single line is devoted to Sarne. It is the ultimate put-down. If there is one thing worse than a kiss-and-tell book, it is surely a kiss-and-not-tell book. Sarne is omitted, suppressed, disappeared. His privacy is left totally uninvaded. True, he merits a reference on the very last page in very small print in the filmography section. And perhaps it is possible to discern the shadow of the affair in her sentence (page 407) about Two Weeks in September. “As for the shooting of this film, I have no recollection of any heart-stopping romance.” He is dismissed as forgettable.
That makes two of us she doesn’t mention. At the time, I saw Sarne as a kind of good-luck charm, rather like Abe Lincoln to the Americans, a cast-iron guarantee that anyone can make it. His fling with the myth was an empirical demonstration that dreams really can come true. Now that Bardot, in her revisionist history, has erased him, the implication seems to be that the whole thing was a hoax, it never happened, it was nothing but a publicity stunt for the suckers.
Bardot’s final victim is the reader. Meanwhile Sarne is gracefully stoical and puts his elision down to “discretion”. “There’s a saying in the business –‘On location doesn’t count’,” he said. The irony is that the publication of Bardot’s de-Sarned memoirs finally releases him from the curse – a 30-year sentence was long enough – and he is making something of a comeback. He is selling The Punk And The Princess in the US as Tough Love, working on a romantic comedy called I Love Lubitsch and about to make a couple of TV appearances in The Knock and Jacob’s Creek. And as for Bardot, she had given the phrase “sexbomb” a new meaning – everything disintegrated around her.
There were two donkeys in Bardot’s life. The first she rescued from a brutal owner, took to her hotel room in the mid-sixties and called Romeo. The second she had castrated in 1989, thus symbolically delivering the coup de grace to the sexual utopia of the sixties. The men in her life were akin to these donkeys, living both the dream and the nightmare of knowing Bardot.
Fathers and Sons
I have several masterpieces hanging on my walls. There is ‘Red Bus’, ‘Cow’ (all black), ‘The Digger’, ‘Airs Rock’ (sic), and, definitely worthy of a spot in the Louvre, ‘Mum, Dad, Spud and Me’. They were all painted by my two sons, when they were aged about 4. Call me biased, if you will, but I also admit that, looking at their later works (they are now aged 10 and 8), there has been something of a falling-off in sheer artistic verve. Or, as Wordsworth neatly put it, ‘Whither is fled the visionary gleam, Where is it now, the glory and the dream?’
The only other picture with a definite dash of gleam and dream is ‘The Village’ – which looks like a bunch of building blocks that have been kicked over and scattered about – by Issam Kourbaj, aged 37. Kourbaj has given me fresh hope that the fond idea of my kids as infant geniuses (retired) was not totally crackpot after all. Picasso said: ‘the true artist does not borrow – he steals.’ And this is what Kourbaj has done: brazenly plundered and plagiarized the early works of his three-year-old son Mourad, and mounted an exhibition – ‘is/am’ – in which, to be fair, he has hung the little guy’s paintings on the wall up alongside his own.Kourbaj the elder was born in the black mountains of southern Syria. He had the classic artistic upbringing – illiterate, impoverished, and selling chewing gum in the streets. His uncle Suleyman used to make things out of unexploded bombs lying about the place (he died, of course, rather suddenly) and the young Issam was similarly forced to make all his own toys, fortunately out of less lethal debris. This rigorous training took him from the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus to the Academy of Art in St Petersburg and finally to London to study architecture and theatre design. ‘They provided me with ladders,’ he said, when I went to see him in his studio in Cambridge. ‘But Mourad is ladderless – that is the magic.’ Kourbaj, to my eye, looks like the young Cat Stevens. To his son’s eye, however, he has red hair, green ears, eyes like Catherine wheels, a crinkly chip smile, and bits of blue funghi sticking out of his head. And it is that intense, uninhibited, and wildly eccentric vision of the world that the grown-up Kourbaj has appropriated. After painting a couple of thousand tourist portraits to earn a few rubels in Russia, Kourbaj vowed never to paint anyone’s face ever again, fled to Mexico and Cuba, and went into a sustained period of abstraction interspersed with landscapes bearing a strange resemblance to naked women. The British Museum bought one of his sketchbooks, but there is a school of thought which maintains that Kourbaj was almost too cool, ethereal, disembodied, culminating in a recent collaboration with Cambridge University’s Department of Aerial Photography. He was floating off into heaven. His son’s paintings dragged him back to earth again.Mourad picked up a couple of prizes from Kettle’s Yard, in Cambridge, and another in a café art competition. Like some superhuman tennis prodigy, he was already overshadowing his old man. Dad decided to give up the struggle and join forces with his son to make a great doubles team. ‘The best teachers are those who do not intend to teach,’ Kourbaj said. ‘He is as primitive as a caveman. He is not confined by the rectangular.’ Kourbaj granted him every child’s wish – he allowed his son to smear paint all over the walls. Using recycled book covers as canvases, Kourbaj père has extrapolated Kourbaj’s fils’s pre-representational efforts to produce radiant blobs and swirls and squiggles that look like some mad particle physicist grappling with the irreducible elements of the universe. But he has also been softened and humanized by his son’s first shots at depicting the world at large, and the exhibition has a separate room dedicated to images of orange cats (with gaping jaws), a doomed bird, impossible machinery, and upside-down trees. ‘Mourad did not even know he was painting,’ Kourbaj said. ‘He is still surprised by everything. I wanted to capture that same sense of surprise.’
I think it was Plato who first suggested that children have a primal vision of truth that is lost as they grow up and are exposed to adult ideas. He also reckoned you had to die to get it back again. Issam Kourbaj has shown you don’t have to go that far and that parents can have it too, if they only open their eyes to the unconscious art of their children. Personally, I don’t care how much Tate Modern offers for ‘Red Bus’ or ‘Cow’ – they are not for sale.