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Brigitte Bardot’s shifting passions

Reporting from Paris —

As Brigitte Bardot approaches her 76th birthday, her starlet aura has been enjoying a broad resurgence — and the woman herself, plenty of attention.

In the year since her widely commemorated 75th birthday, a fashion elite — Dior, Lagerfeld and Gaultier — have offered their catwalk homages to France’s famous “sex bomb.” The actress’ tantalizingly retro 1960s-era face looks out over shoppers from the posh Lancel store on the Champs-Élysées (where they sell the recently launched eco-chic Brigitte Bardot Bag). An exposition on her life drew more than 110,000 fans in Paris last summer, and a comparable crowd will continue to visit the Exposition Brigitte Bardot — in St. Tropez until the end of October — 37 years after her last film was released.

“Since she stopped when she was 38 years old, we never saw her age, so that image remained frozen, indelible,” said Dominique Choulant, the author of “Brigitte Bardot: The Eternal Myth.”

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It all underscores an undeniable fact: Bardot is a living legend — and that’s part of the problem. Most people continue to admire her as a romanticized, frozen-in-time ideal of French femininity, but the reclusive former starlet remains outspoken — some say obnoxiously so — on the issue that she cares most about: animal rights. “I never had trouble saying what I have to say,” Bardot said last week in a handwritten letter to the Los Angeles Times from her home in St. Tropez.

This real-world Bardot has remained a lightning rod in a country that has grown far more consensual in recent decades. On the occasions when she speaks out, by phone or in writing, she often suggests a preference for animals over people — whether it’s those who have immigrated to France, politicians or those in the film industry. “As for being a little bunny that never says a word, that is truly the opposite of me,” she wrote in large block handwriting.

As France’s animal-rights Pasionaria, Bardot speaks out in their defense but often gets sidetracked toward off-color or offensive outbursts. That was certainly the case in a feisty radio interview last month in which she railed against plans for an unauthorized Hollywood biopic on her life and against Muslim culinary traditions, among other things.

On Europe 1 radio, Bardot warned that France is being “invaded” by halal meats (that are eaten by practicing Muslims). She has long argued that halal (and kosher) animal products involve inflicting unnecessary pain on animals.

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She also expressed support for a government proposal to strip the citizenship of naturalized French people who attack the police. “Why would they continue to be French when they do this BS, this crap?” she asked. “When you are French, you must have a certain dignity.”

Over the last decade and a half, Bardot’s repeated digs at France’s estimated 5-million-plus Muslims have led to five convictions for incitement to racism (and fines ranging from $2,300 to $23,000)

Pierre Fournel, the managing director of the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism in Paris, a group that has pressed racism charges against Bardot, said that her “idiotic comments” about Muslims cannot be justified, but he suggested that it is mostly the result of someone who is incapable of reining in their own tongue.

But Bardot is unrepentant. “French courts are backward and politically correct, which is the height of stupidity,” she wrote. “I only want to protect animals from barbarous, cruel, inhuman and backward rituals.”

In some ways, Bardot is reminiscent of major American performers such as Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and others whom fans long to remember for their beauty, talent and youthful potential rather than for what they became later. The French would much prefer to dream about the youthful Bardot who frolicked on the sandy beaches of the Côte d’Azur and almost single-handedly rejuvenated an uptight postwar France. That Bardot shot to international stardom in Roger Vadim’s then-groundbreaking 1956-film “And God Created Woman.”

“She is for me what she is to so many French people: the most beautiful woman in the world, a myth who defends the noble cause of animals, and who is politically incorrect and a bit troubling,” said Jean-Pierre Lavoignat, a French film journalist.

The more strident Bardot gradually began to emerge in the 1970s when her animal-rights activism spurred her to begin questioning cultural traditions. Most French people, even many who disagreed with her stances or tactics, appreciated her devotion to the cause, at least until her arguments began to blur with xenophobic statements and writings.

As early as 1990, screen siren Marlene Dietrich told Paris Match magazine that Bardot’s obsession with animals rather than the suffering of human beings has left the living legend “so bizarre that it is impossible” to perceive her former aura.

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This late-era Bardot is protective of her own image. In the radio interview, she thrashed American director Kyle Newman for his reported plans to make an apparently unauthorized Bardot biopic starring his wife, Jaime King, saying “sparks will fly” if they do not seek her authorization. (Newman could not be reached for comment.)

Despite her recurring outbursts, a survey taken (amid the nostalgic glow of her 75th birthday) last year indicated that 68% of French people continued to have a favorable opinion of Bardot. “I am not sure that young people today make a link between the icon of 1960s sexuality and liberty,” said Lavoignat, “and the old woman who fights for animals now and who sometimes says racist things.”

Author Choulant, who also wrote the recent book “CineMarilyn,” highlights the challenge of being an aging icon. The ever-natural Bardot, who lives with her fourth husband, industrialist Bernard d’Ormale, has not resorted to plastic surgery, nor has she gone to superhuman efforts to retain her physical beauty. “People reproach her for still being alive, for putting out an image that they don’t want to see,” Choulant said. “People abandon their icons as they get older. Every 10 years, there is an extraordinary actress who has a sexual impact on a new generation, someone who represents a new type of woman sexually.”

Often, Choulant makes clear, they are iconic enough to become known by a single name: Marilyn. Bardot. Madonna. Angelina.

And Bardot seems to understand that too. Asked about Marilyn Monroe, she wrote: “I have a lot of things in common with Marilyn, and she is very dear to my heart. Both of us had childish souls despite our starlet bodies, an intense sensitivity that can’t be hidden, a great need to be protected, a naivete! We stopped our careers at the same age, but, unfortunately, not in the same way.”

calendar@latimes.com


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