Here, kitty kitty

Lost in temptation: "Love Kittens" offers four slices of vintage cheesecake

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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.

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