The Lighthouse-Keeper’s Daughter

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Brigitte Bardot turns 90 in 2024 so this is a good time to have a look at her first starring role, in The Lighthouse-Keeper’s Daughter. It wasn’t her first film. That was Le Trou Normand, which also came out in 1952. It isn’t really her first starring role either, since Bardot herself doesn’t appear until 40 minutes in. The opening credits have her top-billed, but they might possibly have been reshot or recut for the US release, which didn’t happen until 1958, by which time Bardot was a phenomenon.

You can see why that happened in this movie, which makes much of the physicality of the teenage BB – the original French title was Manina, la Fille sans Voile, which roughly translates as Manina the Girl without Clothes. The US title was The Girl in the Bikini.

And indeed she is. Bikinis were a big thing in 1952. Named after the nuclear tests carried out on the Bikini Atoll, they’d been introduced in 1946 and by the early 1950s were still shocking a world used to one-pieces or two-pieces that covered a lot more flesh. When Bardot finally does appear, hers is is barely clinging on to her body and that’s what caused the film’s hold-up in the US – a bit too much BB.

But first a rewind, to the actor who thought he was the star of the film, Jean-François Calvé, playing Gérard, a bumptious and broke French student convinced he knows the whereabouts of a hoard of Phoenician gold and so heads off to the Mediterranean to find it, scraping together money from friends for his adventure.

Once in Tangier he hires a boat from salty freebooter/black marketeer Éric (Howard Vernon), having first indulged in some Casablanca-style exotica on the North African coast. Then the two men sail to the island of Levezzi, Gérard with the ways and Éric with the means.

Which is where they run into Manina (Bardot) – the actual lighthouse-keeper is never seen. Gérard last met Manina five years earlier when she was 13. Ooh la la, how she’s grown etc.

And from here a two-pronged story – by day Gérard dives for the Phoenician treasure, by night he romances Manina, while Éric looks on, wondering whether he can have a crack at the bounty and/or the beauty.

Gérard woos Manina on the rocks
Gérard and Manina (different bikini)

For something sold on titillation, this is a surprisingly well made film going out of its way to be entertaining. There are musical interludes, travelogue sequences showcasing the splendour of the Med around Corsica, and well filmed underwater diving scenes, as well as Bardot frequently in her bikini, posing often in a three-quarter profile designed to showcase her allure.

She’s fabulously gorgeous, if still a touch puppy-fatty, and director Willy Rozier introduces her right after he’s done one of his segments featuring the glory of the old Mediterranean, as if she were the latest of the timeless beauties.

Strangely, it’s the interactions between Bardot and Calvé that are the least convincing aspect of the film. It’s not down to the acting but rather Rozier’s decision to splice together the lovers’ scenes from various different takes – or that’s what it looks like. There’s a jarring mismatch in line readings, tone and even eyelines.

Calvé is very buff for someone playing a 1950s student, and the much older Vernon (44 to Calvé’s 27) keeps his end up in many a shirtless scene – it’s the men in this movie who are really showing their skin. Vernon’s CV is full of Nazis, baddies and monsters, so it’s not too much of a shock when things go a bit south for Gérard later on. Vernon gives this film a necessary bit of edge.

Ultimately it probably should be the story either of two men vying for the same woman or the same gold but not both. Still, the cumulative effect – the pretty locations, the sunshine, the romance, the music, the good-looking leads – is quite heady.

It’s a holiday romance of a movie. You might not remember much about it once you are back home and have washed the sand out of your crevices, but it’s warm, exotic, sexy, entertaining and fun while it lasts.

The Lighthouse-Keeper’s Daughter aka The Girl in the Bikini – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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