No longer the sex kitten beloved of the French, she captivated a new audience - in Coventry
Life has treated Brigitte Bardot harshly, and it shows on her face, which she is brave and honest enough to leave unlifted and untucked. The once-glorious sex-kitten mouth is now a pair of tightly pursed lips, the former cascade of blonde hair is going grey, the come-hither brown eyes are hidden behind dark glasses. A grandmother in late-middle age (she is 60), she does not look like a happy or fulfilled woman.

This may explain the obsession with animal rights which prompted her appearance at Coventry cathedral on Tuesday for the funeral of Jill Phipps, whom Bardot called "the Joan of Arc of veal" (and thus, presumably, of the whole animal rights movement). If that movement has, or needs, a Joan of Arc, it is surely Bardot herself. For the past two decades, she has done everything except die for animals, which unlike humans - men in particular - have never let her down. The fortune she earned from her films in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s has been spent on creating animal refuges and campaigning tirelessly against human cruelty. Be it the clubbing to death ("culling") of baby seals, factory farming of calves and chickens, the brutality of slaughterhouses - which she denounced as long ago as 1962 - the ivory trade or just plain ordinary domestic barbarity to pets, La Bardot has been at the forefront of those trying to halt it.

In France, her campaign is seen as eccentric to the point of lunacy. She hurls abuse at her compatriots, calling them gros viandards (fat meat- lovers) - a cruel dig at a nation of gourmets. She makes herself even more unpopular by declaring she is "ashamed" of the French treatment of animals. That she has persisted in the teeth of almost universal ridicule by her compatriots is proof of her tenacity, courage and sincerity.

In 1986, she established an animal welfare foundation in France with 3 million francs of her own money, to stir up French public opinion against the cruelty implicit in the food they eat and the luxuries they buy - fur coats, perfumes based on animal secretions, ivory and foie gras. In 1992, she drew on another 1.5m francs of that money to set up a "retirement home" for ill-treated animals.

Support for animal welfare is hard to galvanise in France. The British are famously sentimental about animals; the French, perhaps because many still live off the land, take it for granted that animals exist for the benefit of humans. The forests of France are silent and birdsong is rarely heard because French hunters shoot anything that flies, and a good deal that walks, as well. Outside every farm in France will be one or more guard dogs, miserable creatures whose entire lives are spent barking furiously at passers-by from the end of a three-metre chain. The notion that this is ill treatment would not cross the mind of the farmer, his wife, or their tender-hearted children.

Five years ago, Bardot told a journalist: "Things are getting worse and worse. It is a painful, terribly sad story. When I think of what animals suffer, I cry and cry. I cannot understand how a civilised society can allow such cruelty." One remembers, reading these words, that she has twice attempted suicide. It is surely not over-simplifying to see, in her deep and genuine pity for animals, Brigitte Bardot identifying their sufferings with her own.

Her concern reflects the unhappiness that so often seems to overtake sexy young beauties whom the public has once loved. Like Marilyn Monroe, burnt out by the strain of being the world's favourite sexual fantasy, Bardot could not live with the burden of her body once its delectable youth had passed and she found proof of what she had long feared - that the public did not love her for herself.

Except, of course, her pets. They didn't care what she looked like; animals never do. And so, as a sex-kitten became a has-been, the handful of dogs and cats grew to a menagerie, a menagerie became a cause, and that cause became an obsession. Hence that appearance in the congregation at Coventry on Tuesday - as electrifying as any she ever made on film.