Gaspard (Jean-Pierre Cassel) lives a quiet, seemingly happy life in a big country house with his son and three precocious nieces. Felicia (Brigitte Bardot) is a beautiful, wealthy and temperamental woman leading the high life in Paris atop a pop art apartment with a party on every floor. With a divorce in the works and two lovers on the go, she never met a man she could not twist around her dainty little finger. Until the day Felicia crashes her Rolls Royce into Gaspard's rickety roadster. As Gaspard gives Felicia a lift into town she is bemused to find he seems immune to her charm. So, on the pretext of exchanging insurance information, Felicia lures Gaspard to a party at her place then follows him home for the sheer satisfaction of seducing then tormenting another hapless man. However, it turns out Gaspard is not so easily seduced.
French filmmakers, particularly those of the Nouvelle Vague, were among the first to acknowledge the artistry of the multifaceted Howard Hawks, his thrillers, westerns and in particular his screwball comedies. It was in that vein that Michel Deville concocted L'ours et la poupée a.k.a. The Bear and the Doll, two years before Peter Bogdanovich delivered a more elaborate Hawksian tribute in the form of What's Up Doc? (1972). Like Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938) here Felicia, a slightly crazy yet alluring if sexually aggressive young woman latches onto a meek, bespectacled, flustered guy and turns his life upside down. Based on a fairy tale better known in France than elsewhere, The Bear and the Doll was the last in a string of light romantic comedies from Deville that began with Tonight or Never (1961) and the award-winning Diary of an Innocent Boy (1968). For Deville this was a fond farewell to all things frothy and fun as he segued into a run of darker, more challenging and introspective fare like Le Mouton Enragé (1974), Kafka-esque political thriller Dossier 51 (1978) and the philosophical murder mystery spoof Paltoquet (1986) though he later made an award-winning return to quirky romantic comedy with La Lectrice (1988).
In a role intended for Catherine Deneuve (who turned it down after original co-stars Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo backed away), France's most iconic sex kitten Brigitte Bardot delivers an especially spirited performance. She may have been disillusioned with the film industry by this point and only a few years away from retirement but certainly gives her all. Which is just as well as without B.B.'s bombshell beauty and vivacious charm to soften her edges, Felicia's crazy antics would prove tiresome if not plain annoying. Deville really runs with the concept of love as a battle as the leads move from verbal sparring to grappling physically with each other, culminating in a long sequence where Gaspard tries his utmost to evict Felicia from his home as she sabotages his every effort. While Bardot parodies her sex kitten image as the amoral man-eater who chews 'em up then spits 'em out until she meets her match, happily Jean-Pierre Cassel's likeable Gaspard proves no naïve country mouse. Instead he is an easygoing yet forthright guy with a sharp sense of humour. Among the funnier scenes is when he pretends to be Swedish to fool Felicia's effete hippie pals.
Deville and co-writer Nina Companeez concoct some choice lines for the spirited players though the film remains wryly amusing rather than uproariously funny, ambling along enamoured with its own cuteness. Filmed in soft-focus with pastel colours this is Euro chocolate box cinema at its most beguiling, matching the gorgeous French countryside with the music of Rossini. Animal antics and a gaggle of charming child actors add to the convivial atmosphere. To an extent The Bear and the Doll plays to conservative attitudes about gender roles and the taming of 'independent' women. Yet it is worth noting Felicia's mischief makes Gaspard feel alive again while she discovers true love without sacrificing her own spirit. One could also interpret the plot as a screwball pastiche of Beauty and the Beast only with Bardot as the Beast as unlikely as that sounds, a post-feminist man-eater who finally falls for a man with integrity. At the time a few critics felt whatever feminist point Deville was out to make was somewhat compromised by Brigitte Bardot's tiny miniskirts and knee-high boots. One imagines fans will feel very differently about that.