Here, kitty kitty

Pub date January 18, 2011

VINTAGE SEXY CINEMA “Ooh-la-la!” For decades this nonsense phrase personified “Continental” knowingness of a nature heavily suggestive to Yanks and yoinks raised under the buzz-kill shadow of a nation founded by Puritans. Just what did it mean? Oral knowledge unbeknownst to Oral Roberts? Sneaky-Pete glimpses of furry minx? Houses of ill repute and burgundy upholstery? Whatever: for long decades, Americans figured Old Europe knew sensual pleasures we were too nouveau to grasp, let alone grapple with.

Hollywood evinced salacious interest in exotic European sirens from early days — seminal silent vamp Theda Bara was credited with all kinds of exotic origin, though her actual city of birth was not-so-decadent Cincinnati. Soulful exported sensuality spanned subsequent decades from Garbo and Dietrich to “heady” Hedy Lamarr and driven-snow Scandinavian (till she got pregnant and left her husband for Rossellini) Ingrid Bergman.

These celluloid goddesses were afforded regal glamour and mystique, as if the Atlantic crossing kept foreign emotions remote. But after World War II, something happened. For one thing, Silvana Mangano exposed substantial melons in the florid post-neorealist melodrama of 1949’s agricultural potboiler Bitter Rice. She ignited a craze for voluptuous Euro-babes that lasted at least two decades, until censorship’s downfall rendered merely-hinted nudity as chaste as Mary Poppins.

Those glory days of international starlet innuendo are commemorated in “Love Kittens,” a new First Run Features DVD box comprising four vintage features of maximum retro spiciness. Two-star Agnès Laurent, which the sage L.A. Times then proclaimed had “a better figure than Mademoiselle Bardot!” Form-fitting duds notwithstanding, she now seems as merely cute as squeaky-clean contemporary Sandra Dee. Her first exported sensation was 1957’s The Nude Set, a.k.a. Mademoiselle Striptease, in which she’s a provincial student pressed to impress her fiancé by practicing the ecdysiast art form in a Parisian basement jazz club. Fear not: this delicious dunce is soon ushered safe back to bourgeois complacency by her stalwart if questionably faithful betrothed.

That same year, she guest-starred in Les Collegiennes, released in the U.S. as The Twilight Girls. The real star is Chanel model and Life magazine cover girl Marie-Hélène Arnaud, playing a newly arrived teacher at a girls academy. One of her charges is Catherine Deneuve — a barely recognizable 13-year-old making her screen debut in scenes restored from their originally cut U.S. release. Laurent is the high-born adolescent whose arrival at the school triggers scandalous entanglements.

Defined by another girl’s line “Please stop crying … whatever it is you’re thinking of now!” this melodramatic curio is like 1969’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie meets 1931’s Mädchen in Uniform meets you-name-it. (Lesbian sentiments are signaled by theremin noodling. Why? Because they’re weird!) Yet it’s largely a smart, sophisticated, just-sporadically-lurid tale that might’ve been better appreciated had it not been billed as “sexy, secretive, seductive” exploitation. It probably didn’t help that scenes crudely inserted after principal photography added two dormitory dwellers much inclined to shed bras and bounce a lot.

Laurent’s vogue was brief — she retired from the screen a half-century ago, dying just last year at age 74 — in contrast to “Teutonic temptress” Elke Sommer, who still occasionally acts in one of her purported seven language fluencies. She had planned, in fact, on becoming a diplomatic translator when modeling called instead. Winning a pageant on vacation in Italy, she got discovered by neorealist pioneer Vittorio De Sica and was soon hopping around the continent as the latest blonde bombshell dropped in Bardot’s wake. By 1963 she’d hit Hollywood, prettying up increasingly dismal mainstream dreck like Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966) and Deadlier Than the Male (1967).

But first she impersonated a Frenchwoman in her two “Love Kittens” opuses, both directed by semi-forgotten Gallic sexploitation expert Max Pecas. She was just 21 — though already very worldly, not to mention curvy — in 1961’s Daniella by Night, playing a model whose work travel sinks her in a Roman potboiler of espionage, blackmail, and murder. (This intrigue’s gist is summed up by one character’s great line: “Apparently, everyone’s jealous of everyone else.”) Our heroine’s virtue is mortally endangered in several circumstances that threaten to separate her from clothing. It would take too long here to explain the pretzel logic by which Danielle must strip before a nightclub audience, then exit with horny American sailors, in order to escape assassination.

In Pecas’ 1963 Sommer vehicle Sweet Ecstasy — one should note certain territories saw it as Sweet Violence — she’s a crass seductress willing to play free-trade merchandise amid a yachtload of quasi-beatnik spoiled rich kids. Eventually she’s redeemed by caring enough to discourage a boy from participating in the craziest variation ever on a chicken contest, involving blindfolded leaps from construction-site cranes.

The difference between these European “sex” flicks and those coming just a few years later is remarkable. There’s so much plot, so many name actors (at least ones familiar to arthouse audiences at the time), and so much production gloss floating the tame exploitation elements, with their ludicrous excuses for toplessness. When heavily painted Sommer was steaming up screens as still import-only Eurobabe (“Nudest Elke Sommer is filmdom’s friskiest frisk!” Playboy exhaled), her movies weren’t exactly classy, but they weren’t Z-grade trash, either.

Her Pecas films remain treasure troves for Francopop enthusiasts: the first was co-scored by Charles Anzavour, the second featured songs by Johnny Halladay. By 1968 — still well before hardcore’s advent — collapsing censorship standards meant racy stuff could predominate, with only a slender g-string of narrative coverage required. Sommer might have been cheesecake — but she was too famous to give it up that freely.