Friday, May 2, 1986

The Frog Kissed by Three Princesses

Roger Vadim tells Anne-Elisabeth Moutet all about his memoirs, Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda.

Bertie Wooster would strongly disapprove of Roger Vadim. "One doesn't bandy a woman's name in mess" hardly ever was one of Vadim's ruling principles. France's best-known seductor, a director renowed less for his films than for the actresses he married and divorced, and one of the very few male exponents of the "kiss-and-tell" memoirs, Vadim just looooves to discuss his life, loves, and lovelife with the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, or Jane Fonda. His conversation is peppered with anecdotes, the names gently dropped, a worldly half-smile softening the innuendos. He has also had several shots at his favourite subject in print. (In 1976 he stormed Britain with a publicity tour for his first autobiography, Memoirs of the Devil, with comments on all of his wives and girl friends - including the "Danish bombshell" Annette Stroyberg, and his then (fourth) wife Catherine Schneider, president Giscard's cousin.)

His latest book, of almost anatomical precision, is succintly entitled Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda - Three Women. They've all had a look at the manuscript, he swears - to forestall possible legal action - and have okayed it, but one can't help wondering how they can possibly like it. Not so Vadim, who seems to believe that Fonda and Bardot at least couldn't have any objections to having the torrid details of their nights with him recounted in graphic detail. If he isn't embarrassed, he reasons, why should they?

There he sits, the ultimate lounge-lizard, very much at his ease, drinking vodka at four in the afternoon in the bar of the Hôtel du Pont Royal, where he's agreed to have the interview. The Pont-Royal bar is a literary landmark in Paris - a meeting place for authors and publishers, where Françoise Sagan, once of Vadim's Saint-Germain des Prés restless crowd, used to beg her publishers for larger advances. Vadim likes the atmosphere - dark red leather, wood panelling, a perpetual late-evening feeling; 11:30 p.m. when it's broad daylight outside.

"My career did really suffer a lot from the fame of the ladies I helped succeed," he says, sipping vodka and looking gently sorrowful - the creator defeated by his creatures. "All this publicity - people paid attention to me, not to my work." He also says: "You see, when I married them, they were fresh, unknown - and then they became stars and changed entirely, and I couldn't cope with their new personalities anymore." And he says: "Officially, they all left me - but there are ways of making women leave you." (Let it be said, for the sake of historical accuracy - one likes to get these things straight - that the only surprise came from Annette Stroyberg, Wife Number Two, who did walk out before Vadim felt like initiating the severance manoeuvres.)

Two years from his sixtieth birthday, he does look incredibly handsome. He is tall and lean; the lines on his face still spell character, not age; the full lips curve in a wolfish grin; his thick hair is more pepper than salt. He dresses with casual elegance - the least one can expect from a former Paris-Match reporter - in corduroys, cashmere pull-over, well-cut tweed jacket. He is supremely self-possessed - making you feel you are the very best person in the world to share his little jokes, his risqué reminiscences, his ultimate judgements on his former harem. "The trouble with Brigitte," he explains, "is that she won't accept her age. She leads this tragic life really - surrounded by yes-men, alone in her house, alienated from the world, with her animals..." The trouble with Fonda was her crusading, but he is softer on Fonda; they actually get along quite well, are neighbours in Santa Monica, share in the education of their 17-year-old daughter Vanessa. The trouble with Stroyberg is of course that she walked out.

"I wasn't finished working on her, that's why she hasn't had the career of the others." She was wrong, you are led to infer. "She left me for Sacha Distel - it surprised me." Distel, he goes on explaining, was a paler copy of himself. A lapse of taste.

He says less about Catherine Schneider - Schneider wasn't an actress, wasn't interested in publicity, there's no point in discussing her. (Schneider, a daughter of one of France's great industrial dynasties, was also hardly ever defenceless.) But to get him really going, start him on Catherine Deneuve. There's very little love lost between them.

There is something eerie about the whole conversation - casual, intimate, catty gossip about the most beautiful women in the world - and it makes Vadim's presence in the Pont-Royal bar strangely affecting. This is the man who's slept with Bardot and Deneuve, you can't help thinking, and you feel troubled. Would he ever consider me? God, of course not. Not in the running. I wonder what he's like in bed. (You don't really; this is on par with wondering what it would be like to go about life's business in a silver-gray Rolls-Royce with chauffeur.) Vadim is probably aware of this effect he has on women, and uses it to his advantage. He is a scarce commodity - a tried and tested Don Juan, a wolf in wolf's clothing, a certified seductor. He doesn't try, but, just as truly beautiful women, he is so used to being desired that it shows - his smiles are never interrogative, for instance; he assumes automatically that you are under his charm.

How he became Le Vadim has been told, but not explained. The son of a French naturalised Russian aristocrat (and, he claims, a distant descendant of Genghis Khan) who had become a Consul in the French Foreign Service, he was born Roger Vadim Plemiannikov eleven years before World War II, and so lived the first years of his adolescence under the Occupation. Small wonder, he says, that in 1945, at 17, he felt like leading the mad, carefree life of Saint-Germain des Prés - dancing all night at Le Tabou, ogling girls from the terrace of the Flore, taking the odd job as an extra on film sets, selling screenplays for a pittance, hanging out all night with Juliette Gréco and Boris Vian and Edith Piaf at La Rose Rouge.

He graduated as a capable film director's assistant, and went on leading the life of Riley (with a stint in London on White Fury, a Sir Alexander Korda film starring Valerie Hobson and Stewart Granger) until he noticed one day the picture of a very pretty girl in ELLE. He decided she was just right for the lead for a screenplay he'd written, and looked her up. She was called Brigitte Bardot.

"Her parents didn't approve of my irregular habits, so to be finally allowed to marry Brigitte in 1951, I had to get a regular job." He knew the then editor in chief of Paris-Match, Hervé Mille, and obtained a 200-dollar a month reporting job, with unlimited expenses.

There was no better way to go on leading his charmed life. There's a quote all hacks take to heart, by the editor of the Washington Times, Arnaud de Borchgrave, who once said that "journalism is the only profession which enables you to remain a juvenile delinquent all your life." Very few news organisations fit that definition as well as Match in those halcyon pre-television days of the 50s and early 60s. The money was on an American scale, the gung-ho typically French. Vadim took to the Match rat-pack like a duck to water.

"We were everywhere. Kings and princesses, paratroopers from Indochina, mercenaries, film stars and politicians, they all talked to us." The Match people thought nothing of chartering planes, helicopters, bribing hotel concierges, pre-empting officers' transport to get faster to a front line, blowing wads of expense-money in three-rosette restaurants with their girlfriends, spend nights on the tiles before leaving for dangerous assignments, driving hard, drinking hard, living hard. Vadim loved it. He had seduced Bardot and soon made her a star; his erratic life finally proved too much for her, as it would with all his wives. "I didn't want to be nailed down,", he explains disingenuously. "If friends called me to a party at midnight, I went. Of course there were dramas." Even after he left Match, the old habits remained.

He graduated to fame in 1954 with his first film, And God created woman, with Bardot, the smooth Austrian actor Curt Jürgens, and a young French beginner who would eventually take Bardot away from him, Jean-Louis Trintignant. By then Bardot was showing evidence of a brain of her own - not necessarily what he liked best, however strenuous his assurances to the contrary. In a press conference, for instance, she showed wit and presence of mind. "What was the best day of your life?" she was asked. "A night." "Who is the person you admire most?" "Sir Isaac Newton, because he discovered that bodies attract each other." Possibly, but no longer those of Roger Vadim and Brigitte Bardot. Annette Stroyberg was soon to follow.

After Annette came Deneuve, the woman yet again voted the most glamorous in the world in a recent French opinion poll - and by then the pattern was established. Seventeen-year-old little girl needs to be awakened to her beauty and to the joys of sex. "Catherine was wary of me, or rather, of my reputation," Vadim smugly writes. "She was expecting to find a superficial, cynical and no doubt intelligent man. She discovered that I was rather tender and a good listener."

Except Deneuve soon turned "bossy", which Vadim didn't like - and doesn't even today. They communicate only through lawyers, have bitterly fought over their son's career (Christian Vadim, 21, read law for one year, then gave up to star in his father's latest (1983) film, the forgettable Surprise Party, to his mother's fury) and Vadim doesn't have enough nasty little anecdotes about Deneuve. "Whenever Christian would come spend a few days with me while he was still at school, she would type out a list of all the clothes and things in his suitcase, and scream if as much as a sock was missing. In the end we used to leave the suitcase in the hallway, and I'd go and buy Christian new clothes." Deneuve, he claims, is so interested in money that she's made a lucrative sideline of suing whoever "invades her privacy" - newspapers, paparazzi, writers, TV programmes. "She has this lawyer on an annual retainer, and she can make an extra 100,000 to 200,000 francs in a good year." You shudder. Is this the voice of the world's best-known seducer? More to the point, you ask him whether he's not afraid of a court case with this interview, and his book. He explains that he has deleted quite a bit from the book on lawyers' advice. And then he grins: "But if she starts to really annoy me, I'll tell more. I've got one or two little things about Catherine that I don't think she'd like known."

What strikes you most at this stage is how perfectly natural this all sounds. Vadim lives in a different world, reminding one forcibly of a male Alexis Colby. It all fits: his ageless beauty, his belief that the world - and women - are there to be taken, the jet-setting life, the dropping of famous names, the soap-opera situations. In his book, just as in Dynasty or Dallas (but quite unlike real life) his present mistress (Deneuve) throws a scene when she finds his ex-wife (Stroyberg) in his bed; he makes love to his nubile girlfriend (Bardot) in the house of her unsuspecting parents; his children are torn between parents; actors lend him love nests to seduce young starlets who after the momentous event open wide the windows to scream their happiness to the whole world in the nude. He even married serious money (Catherine Schneider), but it didn't last any more than the rest - even though he got a whiff of exalted circles there, with President Giscard dropping in or borrowing his Ferrari. (There's a story, which Vadim denies, of how Giscard was driving the Ferrari during a night on the tiles, and rammed it into a milkman's van in the small hours of the morning as he was getting back home to the Elysée Palace.)

But those heady days are over, and if Françoise Sagan is a frequent guest at the Elysée, Vadim is no friend of François Mitterrand's. He divides his time these days between Paris and Santa Monica, shooting made-for-TV pictures for HBO, the American pay-TV channel, and looking for backers for his grander projects. There's also a new woman in his life - she has been there for three or four years, a good average by Vadim standards. She's Ann Bidermann, a 30-year-old American screenwriter about whom he has nothing but praise. She is, he says, intelligent, beautiful, charming. You are slightly dazed by the news. A wolfish grin:

"Anyway, she's not an actress, she's not blonde, and she's an intellectual. Quite atypical. We should stand a fair chance."

© Copyright Cosmopolitan (UK) & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1986

No comments: