B&W, 1959, 106m. / Directed by Roger Vadim / Starring Jeanne Moreau, Gérard Philipe / Wellspring (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1)

Strangely, this first high profile version of Choderlos de Laclos' scandalous novel is perhaps the farthest removed from its source. While such later films as Dangerous Liaisons, Valmont and Cruel Intentions covered the same territory of scheming, bored aristocrats using sex to commit emotional violence against their enemies both real and imagined, Vadim's rendition is a so thoroughly immersed in ultra-chic, New Wave aesthetics that the characters are transformed from ruthless, Michiavellian into a gallery of disaffected, highly photogenic French actors prancing through the Alpine scenery, occasionally bursting into hysterical fits when they're not rolling around naked by the fireplace. Oo la la!

At a high society party we meet our decadent protagonists, Valmont (Gérard Philipe) and his wife, Juliette (Jeanne Moreau), who survey the guests will plotting battle strategies. Juliette sweet talks her spouse into seducing and abandoning her goody-goody adversary, the ravishing Marianne Tourvel (Annette Vadim), while Valmont has his sights set on the virtuous Cecile (Jeanne Valérie). With all the company gathered at a ski resort, the stage is set for a series of manipulations, double crosses, and emotional entanglements which result in violence of both an emotional and physical nature.

The choice to make Juliette and Valmont husband and wife is a peculiar one, especially for the libertine Vadim, as it scuttles the corrupt romantic tension which motivates other versions of the story in which Valmont has lusted after his adversary for years. There's no point in Juliette offering her body as a reward, since he's already had it. Fortunately Moreau still makes her scheming viper such a vivid, memorable character that the alteration becomes less damaging than one might suspect, and she's fortunately matched by Philipe, an engaging actor who sadly died the year of this film's release. Annette, who was married to Roger during filming, reunited with the director the following year for the classic Blood and Roses, after which the couple split. As usual Vadim transfers his offscreen passion into sensual onscreen visuals, with the camera obviously lingering over her face and body with devoted attention. The supporting cast is no less intriguing, with Jean-Louis Trintignant essentially tweaking his earlier And God Created Woman role as the boyish, easily duped Danceny. (Hard to believe Keanu Reeves would essay the same role almost thirty years later!) Of course, one of the most memorable aspects of the film is its vibrant jazz score, most of it provided by the legendary Thelonious Monk. Other cues were provided by an uncredited Duke Jordan, whose work was largely cast aside but later appeared in a soundtrack album all the same. Jazz music in French cinema was all the vogue at the time (e.g., Miles Davis' score for Louis Malle's L'ascenseur pour l'échafaud), but no one can top Monk's scorching riffs blasting out over the chessboard opening credits. For all Vadim's liberties with the novel, his version is a highly memorable riff on familiar territory and offers a least one highly satisfying improvement in the form of Juliette's comeuppance; we wouldn't dream of spoiling it, but the final moments are appropriately sadistic and far more scalding than getting publicly booed at the opera.

Released at the height of Vadim's "respectable" period, Les liaisons dangereuses 1960 later enjoyed a high profile reissue on the arthouse and home video circuits in the latea 1980s. Complete with a hilarious English-language introduction by a beatnik-clad Vadim for the limited Astor Pictures release in 1961, the film successfully cashed in on the Stephen Frears adapation with Glenn Close and remained widely available since, despite awful white-on-white subtitles which proved unreadable during outdoor snow scenes. Wellspring's DVD features the original French cut of the film, sans Roger's introduction, and plays far more seriously without it. The 1.66:1 letterboxing appears accurate enough, though it curiously crops some information from the lower text in the opening company title card. Optional yellow subtitles are a tremendous improvement over earlier versions and image quality is excellent, though some noticeable artifacting during mobile camera shots (in the opening party sequence especially) indicates a less than attentive transfer from a PAL source. The only notable extra is a collection of French trailers for the likes of Jules and Jim, Z, and Place Vendôme.

Color, 1956, 95m. / Directed by Roger Vadim / Starring Brigitte Bardot, Jean-Louis Trintignant / Criterion (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

A film so iconic most people don't even remember it has a plot, And God Created Woman (Et Dieu créa la femme) introduced the world to Brigitte Bardot, gave Roger Vadim his first break as a director, smashed down censorship barriers in the United States, and blurred the line between the arthouse and the grindhouse. So, is the film itself any good? Yes, but probably not in the way most viewers would now expect. Rescued from a hellish life in an orphanage by a stern moralistic couple, young Juliette Hardy (Brigitte Bardot) spends her days working in a bookshop in St. Tropez and her nights partying with the locals. She spurns the advances of millionaire shipyard owner Mr. Carradine (Curd/Curt Jürgens, the villain from The Spy Who Loved Me), hoping instead to leave town with the handsome Antoine Tardieu (Christian Marquand, who later directed Candy and had sex with ice cubes in The Other Side of Midnight). Unfortunately Antoine regards her as nothing more than a one night stand and takes off alone. Antoine's kinder, weaker brother, Michel (Jean-Louis Trintignant), takes pity on the young beauty and, against the advice of his family and the townspeople, marries Juliette. Domestic life proves to be a problem when Mr. Carradine buys out the Tardieu shipyards, with Antoine returning home to assume duties as a chief of operations. Now saddled with three men longing to possess her, Juliette begins to crumble.

While the late Vadim earned a reputation as a womanizer and a materialist, it's interesting to note that this film remained progressive even after countless imitations. Most American directors would have probably gunned Juliette down in a hail of bullets for her transgressions (see Russ Meyer's Lorna for a good comparison), but Vadim is squarely on the side of his heroine. None of the men really deserve her, and the final scene leaves interpretations completely open about the characters' future happiness. Despite their wealth and prestige, businessmen like Carradine and Antoine fail to comprehend Juliette or the entire female gender for that matter; their remarks that she "destroys men" are quite ironic indeed. Of course all of these considerations take a back seat to Bardot herself, more of a force than a character. While the film contains no actual nudity per se, apart from the legendary opening profile shot of Bardot's derriere and a few gauzy skin shots behind curtains, the film conveys a powerful atmosphere of sensuality from the opening frames. Bardot's hair becomes wilder and more disheveled as the film progresses, and she provides some unforgettable iconic images along the way. Look no further than the haunting beach scene between Bardot and Marquand, in which she revives him from nearly drowning with a single provocative gesture of her foot. For such a high profile film, And God Created Woman has had a disastrous history on home video. The first VHS version from Vestron was the familiar English dubbed version, with sloppy panning and scanning which demolished the scope photography. Vadim's camera often sets up actors at opposing ends of the frame, and every inch is necessary to appreciate even the simplest dialogue scene. While the familiar Vadim visual flourishes only break out during the powerful Mambo finale, this is a film to be viewed in widescreen or not at all. The problem was only slightly remedied by a British VHS release, in French with English subtitles and partially letterboxed at 1.85:1. Fortunately those versions are obsolete thanks to Criterion's amazing restoration job, which is perfectly letterboxed and boasts an astounding palette of colours. The St. Tropez waters now glow a luminous aquamarine, and Bardot's red dress is saturated a pure, noise-free crimson. The optional English subtitles restore some surprising profanity to the dialogue and fly by quickly at times, so get ready to speed read. Also included is the surprisingly dull American trailer and a restoration demonstration. (Note: Vadim remade this film less successfully in 1986 with Rebecca De Mornay, turning the female lead into a more emancipated former criminal who longs to be a pop star! Pioneer's US R1 DVD is much better than one might expect, and contrary to the packaging, it's letterboxed at 1.85:1, 16:9 enhanced, and contains the full unrated version.)

Colour, 1968, 98m. / Directed by Roger Vadim / Starring Jane Fonda, John Phillip Law / Paramount (US R1 NTSC, UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Okay, everybody sing along now: "Barbarella psychedella..." Paramount has atoned for numerous DVD sins as of late by releasing Barbarella, the campy thorn in the side of Jane Fonda's curtailed film career. You see, before the current Mrs. Turner was winning Oscars and traipsing over enemy lines during controversial wars, she was married to French director Roger Vadim (a talented guy who eventually transformed himself into the Gallic film equivalent of Hugh Hefner). Vadim placed Jane in a number of sexy arthouse vehicles like Circle of Love, Spirits of the Dead, and the memorably bizarre The Game Is Over. However, their relationship will always be best remembered for Barbarella, an adaptation of the classic S&M French comic strip in which Jane whizzes through the galaxy in various states of undress.

The "plot" is almost completely irrelevant but has something to do with Barbarella being sent by the President of Earth to find the missing scientist Durand Durand (or Duran Duran, as it's commonly spelled and where the Brit pop group got their name). Her quest leads her through numerous kinky misadventures: she's attacked by snapping dolls, makes love to blind angel Pygar (John Phillip Law in a far more plastic performance here than in Diabolik), and winds up in the diabolical kingdom of SoGo, led by the evil, omnisexual Black Queen (Anita Pallenberg, underused but fantastic anyway). The film sports more quotable lines than virtually any other '60s title ("Decrucify the angel or I'll melt your face!," "Here, pretty pretty," and so on) and piles on the colorfully trippy scenery with garish aplomb. This kind of joking facetiousness has turned off a number of viewers unable to get into the campy spirit, and unfortunately the fun does stop occasionally for a few draggy spots; on the whole, however, Barbarella survived its era far better than its counterparts and will no doubt continue to amuse and delight fans of sci-fi kitsch for decades to come.

Okay, good news first: Barbarella looks better on DVD than ever before on video. While the VHS and widescreen laserdisc presentations of Barbarella have been acceptable, its subsequent revival house screenings throughout the country in mint scope condition showed viewers just how much the small screen transfers suffered. The colors on the DVD are much richer and cleaner than the laser, and the sound quality is razor-sharp (identical to the LD). The Bob Crewe/Glitterhouse soundtrack pulses and twangs so richly you'd almost swear it was stereo (too bad the soundtrack only exists on vinyl). Now for the bad news. While watchable, the letterboxed laserdisc unfortunately sheared slivers of information off all four edges of the screen (note how Jane's full body shots when lying down in her ship across the horizontal frame are always chopped off at the forehead and ankles on the laser), while the VHS versions have been a panned and scanned mess. The DVD is framed similarly to the laser... except that even more information is missing on the right side! The picture loss isn't crippling, but it's a shame the folks supervising this at Paramount couldn't have presented the complete image while they were doing the new anamorphic transfer, which looks smashing otherwise. The compositions aren't unduly harmed, and it's better to watch this in scope. And yes, the DVD is the original naughty "Rated M" version with all of Jane's naughty bits intact during the opening credits. Also includes the amusing original theatrical trailer as well as the original French language track, which finds Jane doing her own dubbing (strangely, her French is much more fluid and natural here than in the next year's Spirits of the Dead -- maybe she just has trouble sounding mean in a foreign language).

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