Viva Maria! Review
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Marie Fitzgerald O’Malley (Brigitte Bardot) helps her father in blowing up buildings belonging to the British. They spend years on the run before fate catches up with them in Central America in 1907, and her father sacrifices his life to save hers. Fleeing, Marie hitches a ride on a train and finds her way into a circus. Meanwhile, song-and-dance girl Marie (Jeanne Moreau) is mourning the loss of her stage partner who has shot herself due to a broken heart. Enter the other Marie, and soon the two women are a well-known duo called The Two Marias. Their adventures include accidentally inventing the striptease and, when one of them falls in love with handsome Flores (George Hamilton), they become embroiled in an armed revolution…
In 1965, Louis Malle had just made two quite serious black and white films, the then-scandalous Les amants (which starred Jeanne Moreau) and Le feu follet. The latter is one of Malle’s greatest films, but as it concerns the last twenty-four hours in the life of a suicide, you can see it isn’t a bundle of laughs. Viva Maria! was his way of kicking back and enjoying himself: a large-scale comedy adventure, starring two of the cinema’s most glamorous women, and all in vivid colour spread across the wide Panavision screen.
Viva Maria! is a strange film. It’s not an out-and-out comedy, as most of the second half deals with the armed uprising. But every now and again, Malle and co-scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière throw in an odd quirky or surreal touch or two: the black officials who speak in cutglass Oxbridge and complain about the lack of a decent cup of tea in their country, a man leaving the Gents’ toilet on horseback, a decapitated man carrying his own head around, a gun which shoots round corners. Needless to say, the pre-credits sequence showing Marie and her father’s bombing campaign (to the accompaniment of a sung narration) should be taken as being of its time: forty years later it’s distinctly tasteless. Bardot is hardly a natural choice to play an Irishwoman (even one with a French mother), but she and Moreau are in top form and make a good team. Malle stages the action scenes very well and on the whole Viva Maria!, while basically an indulgence and hardly one of its director’s most essential works, is entertaining enough for the two hours it’s on. Critics at the time sniffed, but the public ignored them. Two great female sex symbols at the height of their allure certainly didn’t hurt.
Malle had made films in colour (Zazie dans le Métro) and Scope (Les amants) before, but in Viva Maria! he combined the two. Henri Decae’s camerawork is very rich, reds being particularly vivid. This colour scheme is well rendered on disc, though shadow detail is occasionally lacking: it will be a test of your player and viewing equipment to see if you can make out much of the faces of the officials at the beginning of Chapter 5. Some scenes show grain, but it isn’t unsightly. Print damage is minimal, but includes a notable splice during the opening credits.
Incidentally, the version passed by the BBFC for an A certificate in January 1966 ran 120:56. The present version runs 116:29, and of course PAL speed-up does not apply. I don’t know what is missing. It may of course simply be play-out music.
Viva Maria! was filmed mostly in French with occasional exchanges in English and Spanish. The film certainly did show in some areas in an English dub – the end of the trailer on this DVD says “English spoken here” – but MGM have provided only the original soundtrack for this disc in its World Films line. It’s in mono, as you would expect from a mid-sixties film. It’s quite a loud soundtrack, but well-balanced, and the dialogue is always audible despite having explosions and music to compete with.
Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish, though annoyingly, they subtitle all the dialogue, including that in the subtitle language. There isn’t an option for example of subtitling the French and Spanish dialogue and not the English. Some of the translations are odd: Moreau’s recollections of performing the classics on stage are spoken as “Molière, Hervieux, Sardou” but are subtitled in English and Spanish as “Romeo and Juliet, Othello, East Lynnet [sic]”. There are twenty chapter stops, and the disc is encoded for Region 1 only.
The only extra on this single-layered disc is the American theatrical trailer, which begins Viva Bardot! Viva Moreau!...and continues viva-ing Fun, Suspense, Striptease and Adventure, before ending up with Viva Don’t Miss It. This is in quite poor condition with scratches and splices particularly near the beginning. It’s in anamorphic 1.85:1 and runs 3:06.
Not quite the jolly, sexy romp it’s often thought to be, Viva Maria! shows enough of its makers’ quirks to be worth a look, especially as this DVD is not expensive.