Viva Maria Review

The Film

Louis Malle was a film-maker who enjoyed a fair bit of diversity. In his early career, Malle made movies which had very little thematically to suggest they were the work of a single artist. His competence in making the very new wave like Elevator to the Gallows, his unremitting commitment to the anti-bourgeois romance of Les Amants, such artistry and seriousness was very likely to be followed by something as disposable and superficial as Zazie dans le Metro. I wouldn't for a second suggest these were not fine films, but the lack of a clearly personal agenda suggests that the director was not one who could easily be seen as an auteur.
For all his abilities and accomplishments, I don't believe that Malle made a purely personal work until Murmur of the Heart and then I believe he started to make the best films of his life. When his work was sincere and felt, Malle became an immense artist but he also chose to make films filled with nonsense and populism. Viva Maria is one of his movies that belong in that latter category.

The idea of a young Brigitte Bardot converting the world through free love and socialist revolution is a formidably attractive one. Similarly intoxicating is the merging of the magic of performance with the transformative power of revolt in a story set amongst entertainers who develop political commitment from following their hearts and passions. Viva Maria shares a spirit with many of the westerns which were to come from Europe which used the historical tales of the Americas as a backdrop for modern thoughts on rebellion and class conflict.
It is the anarchy and freedom of feeling that allow the ridiculous plot to hide in the passionate and colourful proceedings. This is wholly appropriate for a film about a travelling circus caught in the tumult of civil war. Unbelievable chance and chaos lead to the gorgeous pouting Republican terrorist Bardot finding an escape route as Jeanne Moreau's performing partner. If you think about Bardot as an Irish revolutionary for too long then I guarantee your head might hurt, and the film keeps the politics simplified so as to help you out. What we get is rich ugly landlords exploiting handsome peasants (an opportunity for George Hamilton to play Hispanic and look all Christ like).

Malle and his co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière enjoy the sprawling story and pepper it with moments of satire and surrealism. The director's particular brand of anti-clerical feeling is very evident in the depiction, quite historically accurate, of a grasping and reactionary Catholic church, the military are hapless fools, and the landlords are perverts and slaves to aping the western world. The whole thing boils down to free love and socialism and when it looks as much fun as this then sign me up.
Moreau and Bardot have very different approaches to the film and their sisterhood is not entirely convincing. Bardot winks and wiggles as a clumsy sexpot, and Moreau's more minimal and dignified approach stands apart from her sister in crime. Despite her technical superiority and greater experience, the film ends up as much more of an advert for what Bardot's persona represents than Moreau and it captures that very particular charm that the vivacious Bardot's early career had in spades.

So it's a leftie lark, a revolutionary romp that says make love and praise the revolution. It's camp, it's simplistic and Marx and Engels may not have approved of socialism sold through sex, yet Viva Maria is fantastic fun that makes you laugh and want to join the vanguard of an unlikely upheaval.

Transfer and Sound

Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic wide-screen, there is some underlying print damage but the look of this over 40 year old film is still rather good. The damage consists of flashes of white, hairs and very occasional spots, but the transfer is quite sharp, colourful, and possesses natural levels of grain with fine black levels. I wondered if some colour has been boosted, but I can only imagine that this presentation would improve with restoration. Visually, the quality is quite lovely.
Audio is provided with a French dual channel audio soundtrack, of which I noticed little in the way of source or mastering issues. The optional subtitles do not translate the opening narrative song and stick purely to the following dialogue. I am not sure if the R1 disc available does this as well but it does seem to offer subs for English dialogue in the main soundtrack, so the chances are it is the same as this presentation. In my opinion the opening sequence of Bardot and father is not quite as impressive if you don't understand the lyrics of the song that accompany it as non-French speakers will.

Discs and Special Features

The sole supplement here is a trailer which is in fine condition and ups the ante in terms of selling the film as a romp. The disc is dual layer and region 2 encoded with functional menus and little in the way of thrills.


Viva Maria will appeal to those who love Malle's variety or the spaghetti western. It's a glorious experiment in populist rebel rousing and available with a fine transfer.

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