Birth of an icon

Birth of an icon

By Michael Pickard
March 17, 2023

The Director’s Chair

A young French actress’s rapid rise to global superstardom is charted in six-part biopic Bardot. Mother-and-son writing and directing team Danièle Thompson and Christopher Thompson explain why and how they wanted to tell the story of the ‘world’s first influencer.’

French model and actor Brigitte Bardot’s rise to fame was nothing short of meteoric. Becoming an influencer in an era decades before Instagram and 24-hour news cycles, she drew crowds wherever she went and featured on the front pages of newspapers around the globe.

Now, a six-part biopic called Bardot explores her early life and the decisions and relationships that catapulted her from a 15-year-old Vogue cover star to international icon on the back of 1956 feature And God Created Woman – which was directed by her then husband Roger Vadim – and how she began to struggle with the attention brought on by her new-found fame.

Starring Julia de Nunez in her first major role, the French-language series comes from mother-and-son writing and directing team Danièle Thompson and Christopher Thompson, who have previously collaborated on Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno feature Jet Lag and comedies A Change of Plans and It Happened in Saint-Tropez. Approached by a producer with an idea for a series about Bardot, they immediately found a story full of drama, set in a post-war period when changes in society were heightened by the freedom and liberation Bardot herself sought from her protective parents.

“It’s been said, and it’s true, that for a good series to describe a world that’s changing, having a central character who’s a king or queen in that world is a good place to start,” Christopher tells DQ. “That’s really what we saw in this story. France is coming out of World War Two in the late 40s and early 50s, society is changing and Bardot’s explosion, which started with the worldwide release of And God Created Woman, really became a central point in French popular culture at that time.

Christopher Thompson

“We were also interested in the intimacy of her character and describing what goes on in the life of a 15-year-old, the age we first meet her, who is longing to live her life and have her freedom, and then what happens to that longing for freedom when ultra-fame hits her.”

Danièle and Christopher have been working on the project since before the pandemic struck in 2020, reading material about Bardot and the changing role of women in the 1940s and 1950s – a theme that gets almost equal billing in the series, which is produced by Federation in coproduction with G-Films for France 2 and Mediaset Italia. Federation is also distributing Bardot, which will air on Netflix in Germany, German-speaking territories, Benelux and Switzerland.

“We went through all this research and pinpointed events or specific relationships we thought would be interesting as a television drama and that also carried a certain theme – what women were going through in the 50s,” Christopher says. “That’s how the show was then structured from episode one to six.”

In the first episode, Bardot meets Vadim and breaks free from the confines of her family, before episode two jumps to the filming of And God Created Woman, the film that would make her a star.

“Suddenly, with this second chapter, it’s the end of her love with Vadim and the beginning of her love affair with Jean-Louis Trintignant, who was the actor in the film,” Christopher continues. “So there was a lot of drama there. It’s the beginning of the myth of Brigitte and the shockwave created throughout the world, because this young girl on screen is completely natural and exactly how she was in real life. It creates a reaction no one really expected.”

“It was very new,” Danièle says of Bardot’s naturalistic acting style. “What everybody saw on screen was so different from the image of all these beautiful actors who were stars since the beginning of movies, which was a little more than 50 years before. She suddenly brings the new idea that maybe every single girl can look like her, walk barefoot and have their hair like hers. This is a completely new thing that appears all over the world.”

Julia de Nunez takes the lead in Bardot, marking her first major role

Bardot retired from acting, and public life, in 1973 following the release of her final films, and the animal rights activist went on to launch the Brigitte Bardot Foundation. Danièle and Christopher wrote to her when they first started working on the biopic, but she told them she didn’t want to participate in the project in any way.

“She trusted us and she was OK with it, but she didn’t want to be part of it, which actually was fine with us because we wanted to be free to tell the story the way we wanted,” Danièle says. Instead, they spoke to lots of people who knew Bardot at the time depicted in the show and could offer them insight into the world she inhabited.

“We’re telling the real story,” Christopher says. “What we describe and is described by her in various interviews is she wanted out from her family and she found a new equilibrium with this young man [Vadim] she met. That’s part of her story.

“She has been perceived, like many women, as an object, a sex symbol, an object of desire, and what did interest us through the series is how she’s in charge of what she decides and what she wants from life and from her relationships – until her life is made impossible by the hysteria around her and the rise of this paparazzi culture. That’s when this freedom is taken away from her. She is, in a sense, the first influencer and the first person whose privacy has been invaded in such a way.”

Danièle Thompson

For such experienced filmmakers, it’s surprising to hear that making Bardot proved to be a “very new” experience for both Danièle and Christopher, who have most commonly written together on films Danièle has subsequently directed.

On this series, they decided to showrun and co-direct all six episodes, but then had to work out what that meant in practical terms once production was underway. In the end, Danièle directed episodes one, three and six, while Christopher picked up two, four and five.

“From then on, it was really quite wonderful because we were able to cross board everything and just commit ourselves to this four-month shoot,” Christopher says. “Sometimes one of us had a day off because the other was shooting. We did not cross over on the set but everything else, from pre-production to post-production, we did hand in hand and it was a wonderful setup. It was also very economical because, with the same crew, you could have one of us doing a scene on the set in the morning and the other in the afternoon. There was no block one, two or three. All the money is on the screen.”

Writing together, they would sit around a table and talk “for weeks and months,” taking notes and digesting their thoughts about story and character and identifying the key scenes. They would then write scenes together, but always keeping their directing roles in mind and ensuring the story unfolded from Bardot’s point of view.

“We even decided we were going to show all the young men she had in her life over those years through her eyes, so we show men without their shirts on, and practically nude, more than her,” Danièle notes. “She loved men and she actually displayed a freedom that women did not have at the time by having affairs with several men. This is in the 50s – it was something that was not accepted by any society anywhere. She always decided she was going to do what she wanted to do.”

“The whole show is from her point of view and the sexual drive in the show is also something we wanted to do from her point of view,” Christopher says. “That’s a way of turning around the narrative of her as a ‘sex symbol’ in the 50s and that she’s only regarded through the desire of others and men. We really wanted to be with her, showing her desire and what she feels.”

The series follows the iconic French star as she experiences uncomfortable levels of fame

To find the actor who would play Bardot, the directors saw dozens of young performers before they met with rising French star de Nunez. They were particularly bowled over by her personality, because more than wanting someone who simply looked like the real Bardot – and de Nunez has a startling likeness – they were looking for someone who could play a role that evolves from young girl to international star. De Nunez was picked, and she shares the screen with co-stars Victor Belmondo, Géraldine Pailhas, Hippolyte Girardot, Yvan Attal, Anne Le Ny, Oscar Lesage, Noham Edje and Jules Benchetrit.

“We never asked her to imitate Bardot. We just wanted someone who had her own personality and could slowly, through the show, forget the real Bardot and become her,” Danièle says of casting de Nunez. “Suddenly this young girl appeared on the screen and there was something about the way she was moving, talking and improvising.

“It was quite remarkable – and we were immensely relieved because we’d decided if we didn’t find the right person we would literally not do the show, because she has so much on her shoulders. The first episode is mostly when she’s 15, so we made her look much younger, which we recreated from Bardot’s pictures of the time. But she becomes a woman and she’s just a great actress.”

Once they had found their star, Danièle and Christopher faced the task of recreating Paris and the south of France during the time period featured in the series. But as Danièle notes, they quickly discovered “nothing is the same anymore.”

“It was really a challenge because this is not a big US or British project where you have an immense amount of money to recreate the past,” she continues. “This was very interesting for us to really work on recreating the apartments, the details, the fashion. Our costume designer, Marylin Fitoussi, a very talented woman who did the costumes for Emily in Paris, worked hard to keep inside the budget and yet make it true and identifiable as the 50s.”

Bardot has been made for France 2 and Mediaset Italia

While the real Bardot might have been out of the public glare for several decades, Christopher likens her to the late Queen Elizabeth II when he describes her as an ordinary young girl who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances.

Bardot is similar to Netflix’s royalty drama The Crown in that it’s based on facts but is entirely the work of screenwriters, he says. “The conversations that take place between people we know are totally invented, yet it’s based on reality. This is great fun for us.”

“But the difference between Brigitte and the Queen is that, very early on, the Queen was supposed to be the Queen of England,” Danièle says. “Brigitte was just a young girl who wanted to make a living in movies, have fun and work like many other women who have succeeded in this business.

“What suddenly changed her life was this film, And God Created Woman, because she started living in a prison, maybe a gilded prison, and she has been trapped everywhere she has been from then until today. She has a phobia of crowds and being looked at, so she hardly goes out. She started living differently after that moment at the end of episode two. It changes everything.”

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