She hit the silver screen as a sultry temptress in Et Dieu crea la femme (And God created woman) in 1956, instantly making Brigitte Bardot the face that symbolized France -- and French women.
Until her retirement from the cinema in 1973, BB, who turns 75 Monday, was never out of the headlines. She made 48 films, frequently nude, recorded dozens of songs and picked up and dropped lovers as only male stars had done publicly before.
A retrospective exhibit, Brigitte Bardot, les annees insouciance (years of nonchalance) at the Espace Landowski in Boulogne-Billancourt near Paris, is an attempt to recapture the impact she had, and to celebrate the era-defining career of a woman who seemed to be a force of nature.
The exhibit opens with a film clip of the star clad only in long black boots and a floating French tricolor flag -- an image that says much about her twin status as sex symbol and national treasure.
For France, she was as much an embodiment of the glamorous post-World War Two world as James Bond, Marilyn Monroe or the Beatles.
It was a very tranquil, sleepy, conformist France that was getting over the war and the Occupation, said Henry-Jean Servat, a writer and friend of Bardot's, who curated the exhibition. She blew all of that up completely.
Compared with the stars of the time -- made-up, smoothed over -- she was fresh, natural and modern. On the screen, she was just what she was in life, Servat said.
Brigitte Bardot couldn't care less about what other people think, wrote Simone de Beauvoir, one of France's earliest and most famous feminist writers.
She eats when she's hungry, she falls in love with the same simplicity, without ceremony.
She does what she wants and that's what's disturbing.
At the same time, the changed moral climate which Bardot helped to create meant she was not a scandalous figure and she was chosen as the face of Marianne, the symbol of France whose bust hangs in town halls up and down the country.
The exhibition is based on photographs and film clips of Bardot's career with a number of objects, costumes and personal memorabilia, lent by friends including Alain Delon, although assembling personal items for the exhibition was difficult.
She couldn't give very much herself because she doesn't have anything left. She sold it all, Servat said.
After retirement, Bardot devoted herself in single-minded fashion to animal welfare, cutting off her ties with show business and declaring that having given her youth to men, she would devote her mature years to animals.
Her image was tarnished in recent years by a book she published in 2003 entitled A cry in silence, an angry diatribe on modern France for which she was prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred against Muslims.
But a survey published at the weekend showed that 68 percent of French people nonetheless had a positive opinion of her and interest in the exhibition has been high.
The exhibition at the Espace Landowski runs until Jan 31.