Brigitte Bardot is one of those interesting figures from cinema, an iconic actress known more for her image than her acting. A sort of French combination of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, she lacked the former's filmography even if she was more talented than the latter. Off the top of my head, I had seen maybe three Bardot movies before this box set, The Brigitte Bardot Classic Collection, yet I wouldn't even want to hazard a guess how many photos I've seen of her. I've got four mp3s of songs she recorded on my hard drive if that helps my credibility at all.
Bardot's reputation is built largely on a series of tease films she made through the 1950s and 1960s, many of them alongside her husband, Roger Vadim. Consider them the model for Bo and John Derek, with hubby coming up with film scripts that were more concerned with the various states of undress he could show his wife in. You know, the way there is always water around for her to either fall into or have poured over her. I know I come off as judgmental, but I'm not saying this is necessarily a negative. You get what you expect with a Brigitte Bardot film, at least in terms of the three movies on the three discs that make up The Brigitte Bardot Classic Collection. I can see now why Godard worried about the expectations he'd be saddled with when producers forced him to cast the bombshell in Contempt. I can also imagine how her fans must not have liked how blatantly he defied and ignored them.
The set leads off with an early black-and-white picture, 1956's Plucking the Daisy. Bardot was in her early 20s but still playing innocent ingénues. Roger Vadim collaborated on the script for this light sex comedy, but the director was Marc Allégret, who otherwise appears to have had a fairly anonymous career. He has cast the young Brigitte as Agnes, a naïve country girl who has written a satirical novel about small town life. Published anonymously, Plucking the Daisy is the scandal of Vichy, exposing everyone's inner-most secrets, not the kind of thing an officer's daughter should be doing. Rather than deal with daddy's wrath, Agnes goes to Paris to connect with her brother (Darry Cowl), who is supposedly a successful painter. There, she gets into a variety of mishaps, largely predicated on the fact that no one expects a girl who looks like Brigitte Bardot to be so innocent. She breaks into the Balzac museum, falls for a lecherous reporter (Daniel Gelin), and ends up joining an amateur striptease. It's amazing how many times she ends up on the ground, crawling along with her derriere in the air, or other such predicaments. Also amazing is how little of Bardot we see in the stripping scenes, even if we do get naughty glimpses of the other performers.
Plucking the Daisy is actually harmless fun. It rolls along at a very good pace, peppering its silly story with enough solid jokes to make it entertaining. Bardot is actually quite charming as the lovable dunderhead, and though she hadn't quite matured into her sexpot role yet, she was still very sexy.
The breakthrough for sex-kitten Bardot, and for Vadim, was actually just two films away. 1956's ...And God Created Woman (available separately as a Criterion edition) was a big hit around the world, and it particularly changed how international cinema was perceived in the U.S. Turns out the Eisenhower era wasn't so repressed that they couldn't enjoy a gorgeous French blonde jiggling in bathing suits. Vadim tried to follow this success two years later with the second film in the Classic Collection, 1958's The Night Heaven Fell. The formula here is basically the same as ...And God Created Woman, with Bardot playing Ursula, a young woman sent to live with her aunt in Spain. There she attracts the wrong kind of attention, falls for the wrong kind of man, and generally ends up in trouble. Her lover, Lamberto (Stephen Boyd), not only seduces her aunt (Alida Valli), but he kills her uncle (Fernando Rey), as well. The entire second half of the movie is spent chronicling their long flight from justice, alternately loving each other and loathing one another.
The Night Heaven Fell languishes in worn-out melodrama. Character motivations are puzzling and contradictory, and the story is pretty much like a million bad westerns. Vadim, who co-wrote the screenplay and directed, clearly isn't all that interested in the narrative or even in the performances. The acting is uniformly wooden, and his camera only really seems to wake up when shooting documentary footage at bullfights or in small villages. Apparently it was a pretty tumultuous production, and you can see in a lot of scenes where long and medium shots were done on location, and the close-ups were done in a studio with rear projection. Bardot manages to strip down to her underwear more than once, even shower twice, and we get a flash of bare breasts later in the picture, so the audience gets what they were essentially looking for. Unfortunately for the 1958 audience, they didn't have a fast-forward button.
The Brigitte Bardot Classic Collection itself fast forwards from disc 2 to disc 3. The final movie in the set reteams Bardot with her then ex-husband Roger Vadim for what would be her last feature-length movie, 1973's Don Juan (or If Don Juan Were a Woman). Bardot is nearing 40 by now, and she is still a beautiful woman. Except for a tragic hairstyle for a brief portion of Don Juan, she looks phenomenal. Some may actually prefer the more grown-up, confident woman. I know I tend to. She's more in charge, more there.
The movie looks pretty good, too, but it is also a fairly strange, muddled misfire. The story involves Bardot's character, Jeanne, telling her cousin, a pretty-boy priest (Mathieu Carrière), about three seductions undertaken with malicious intent. There is the married man who used her (Maurice Ronet), the savage egotist (Robert Hossein), and the sensitive guitarist (Robert Walker Jr.), all of whom suffer for the want of going to bed with Jeanne. The egotist in particular is humiliated when Jeanne steals his wife (a very hot Jane Birkin), tricking him into believing he's going to get a threesome. Not so!
Some of Don Juan is wonderfully nuts. For instance, Jeanne lives on a tricked-out submarine! There are many cool space-age sets, like the earthbound equivalent of some of Vadim's Barbarella creations. The clothes are pretty groovy, too. It's the story that has problems, it never really goes anywhere. The idea of Brigitte Bardot as a mysterious avenger for the female heart definitely appeals, and her icy powers of seduction are in full flower here, but Vadim has no ending, so he neutralizes her, literally burning her down. Don Juan in Hell. The film seems to display pretensions of something more, but really, it's just more soft-core titillation.
All three films in The Brigitte Bardot Classic Collection have different specs, but the quality is fairly standard across all the discs. Plucking the Daisy is the only full frame feature and the only one in black-and-white. For one of the older films, it looks very good, with only a little inconsistency in the resolution and a largely clean print.
The same can't be said for the 2.35:1 widescreen, Technicolor The Night Heaven Fell. Though the color is pretty good, the overall resolution tends to be soft and many scenes look grainy. There is also regular print damage, usually spots or some other kind of dirt or debris. Not too horrible, the picture is always clear, but don't expect perfection.
On the flip, the 1.66:1 transfer of Don Juan (or If Don Juan Were a Woman) looks great. Excellent colors, crisp lines, and no dirt or scratches.
Plucking the Daisy and The Night Heaven Fell are both mixed in their original mono with optional English subtitles. Both sound decent, with very little in terms of off tones or hiss and pops. The Night Heaven Fell has two instances, once at the very beginning and then later when Bardot and Boyd are fighting in the wilderness, when the audio goes out of sync for about 30 seconds. In the latter case, we see Bardot's mouth move and have subtitles for the dialogue, but the actual recording is lost.
The subtitles on Plucking the Daisy also read as overly concise, like they were extremely simplified. Sometimes my rudimentary French told me that more had been said, or that the original lines had a different flavor, than what was being written on screen. Other times, lines of dialogue passed with no dialogue at all.
Don Juan is mixed in stereo and has good volume levels, a nice balance of music and dialogue.
The three discs in this collection come in a double-sized plastic case with trays for each disc. The case is clear plastic, the cover is printed on both sides.
All three DVDs have the same extras: the trailers for all three movies in the set, and a text-based Brigitte Bardot filmography.
If you're curious about the star power of Brigitte Bardot, then The Brigitte Bardot Classic Collection is actually a pretty good place to start. Something very old, something from the classic period, and then her swan song. The problem is that the films are mostly forgettable, even the best one, the early romp Plucking the Daisy. It seems this is the flaw of Bardot's legacy, her body of work isn't nearly on par with her body. These movies were designed for cheesy thrills, and though Daisy is a pleasing comedy and Don Juan is strangely alluring, The Night that Heaven Fell lands with a thud. Rent It.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.