Monday, November 10, 2008

Dear Brigitte

One thing I never understood about Little Miss Sunshine was its supposed freshness. To me, it seemed a slight variation on every quirky what-random-personality-twist-can-we-think-up-next indie comedy that had come before. Indeed, forty years earlier, the venerable James Stewart appeared in an early entry into this genre. You think Little Miss Sunshine is precious and eccentric? Dear Brigitte features Stewart as a scatter-brained professor and poet who lives on a houseboat with his his wife, teenage daughter, and 8-year-old son (they spend evenings performing for each other in an impromptu classical quartet). Their neighbors include an artist who's constantly painting his nude wife and a dotty old man who likes to speak directly to the camera as a narrator (he does this even when other characters are around and they look on, confused).

Despite his father's artistic pedigree, the little boy turns out to be a mathematical genius with a secret affinity for Brigitte Bardot. The family decides to use the little boy's accurate race-track predictions (shades of Biff Tanner) to start a family foundation, and soon the money is rolling in. Late in the movie, apropos of nothing, the already confused narrative comes to a halt, and Stewart takes his son to France, so that he can cuddle and pose for pictures with Bardot herself. This is one of those movies that seems like it was assembled from a bunch of wacky ideas (Brigitte Bardot, child geniuses, artists painting nudes, gold-digging teenagers, overzealous psychoanalysts, degenerate gamblers, scenic San Francisco) thrown into a hat, drawn out at random and strung together to form a screenplay. That said, its inherent charm eventually compensates for its fecklessness.


I discovered Dear Brigitte by combing TV listings for upcoming screenings to record on a DVR. Dear Brigitte was appearing, of course, on the hilariously erratic Fox Movie Channel which...well, more on that later. The summary was something to the effect of, "An 8-year-old boy is obsessed with Brigitte Bardot." Intrigued, I recorded it (several times, as it's on continuously - another Fox quirk) and finally sat down to view the film, wondering to myself: how can they build an entire film from that promise? The truth is, of course, that they don't. In fact, the Bardot subplot (which lends the movie its title) has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Nothing. Oh, they try to tie into the idea that the professor loves the humanities but his son is too science-minded, but it's a stretch to say the least.

And finally - and not even for the climax! - father and son wind up in Brigitte Bardot's living room (supposedly the boy needs a rest from all his strenuous calculating). And thank God, because it's the most winning scene in the whole movie. Bardot coos in heavily accented English over the besotted boy, introduces him to her pet dog, and offers a long kiss on the cheek. And the boy, Bill Mumy, later of "Lost in Space", looks like he's about to collapse from swooning. Wouldn't you? It's all very clean (no masturbation jokes throughout), though Stewart does a bit of a double take when Bardot announces that she's taking the boy to visit her bedroom. Unfortunately for Mumy, all she offers him there is a puppy.

The whole thing is so ridiculous - and seems so much like a contrivance for a desperate screenwriter to meet Bardot himself - that it's a surprise to learn the movie was based on a novel. The whole film is very peculiar, from the computer-graphic credit sequence (since the boy is a "human computer" I guess?) to the ending which proves one supporting character to be a villain and then never exposes his villainy to the protagonists. Watching it, I could easily imagine reading it as an amateur screenplay - anyone who's ever perused one of those knows what I mean, what with the shapeless structure, the non sequitur scenes, the fallback on cliches, and the desperate attempts to assuage incoherence with grand gestures. Yet in addition to its literary credentials, the screenplay was crafted by experienced musical writer Hal Kantor and (uncredited) Oscar-nominated Nunnally Johnson. It was 1965, and middle-aged West Coast swingers were trying to get hip - maybe they concocted the movie in a marijuana haze?

But seriously, you can see the movie stumbling towards some kind of Mod 60's aesthetic (and failing). The narrator name-drops Tom Jones, but it feels like a desperate old fogey trying to prove he's "with it." The portrait of teenagers is already somewhat dated, and the film's style - sumptuous widescreen - would be considered square, even in Hollywood, within a few years. Since Dear Brigitte came out in '65, it stands at the crossroads of the Old Hollywood and the New. It mixes digital-age opening credits with an old-fashioned "The End" tag at its conclusion, references to a more swinging cinema across the Atlantic with its own master-shot aesthetic, the Golden Age's Jimmy Stewart with the New Wave's Bardot. Indeed, when Bardot finally appears it's as if she's stepped in from a parallel dimension and to see her and Stewart in the same room (mostly ignoring each other) is as surreal any "The Twilight Zone" premise.

Yes, there are no ultra-self-conscious proto-Wes Anderson stylings here to go along with the pointedly offbeat screenplay. And ultimately that's the movie's redeeming value - its sheer sincerity and the sense that, like its tiny protagonist and even his absent-minded parent, Dear Brigitte doesn't quite understand how ridiculous its own scenario is. It's as innocent as an 8-year-old. The movie is slow going at first as it laboriously telegraphs its wackiness, and I almost shut it off a few times but once the plot kicks in, Dear Brigitte becomes more engaging. And in its penultimate sequences, when the little boy's dream comes true, there's an endearingly goofy sweetness. Besides, a few minutes spent looking at Bardot is well worth the investment of two hours. One doesn't have to be a prodigy to figure that out.

Oh, and as for Fox Movie Channel. Let me just quote Dan Callahan, via the Self-Styled Siren:

"It's like there's no actual person programming there. The same ill-assorted ragbag of movies keep playing over and over again, for years. It's not as if they're just playing popular modern movies: at least 50 percent of the films they play are very obscure things from the seventies and eighties. And television stuff, like a nearly 3 hour telepic about Mia Farrow starring Patsy Kensit. !?! (I will confess that that one has an unforgettable scene: Frank Sinatra and Mia, the morning after. He looks at her and says, 'So, Mia...how'd you like it...my way?') Then, out of nowhere, they'll play Clara Bow in 'Call Her Savage.' Or 'Bigger Than Life.' But by the time they're through, you're going to be awfully sick of 'Call Her Savage' and 'Bigger Than Life,' difficult as that is to imagine. They run their movies into the ground by constantly re-playing them."
And later:

"My vote is for a computer running everything at that channel. Somebody programmed that motley group of titles years ago, and it just keeps them coming. Then somebody idly pushes a button once or twice a year and lets loose a 'Bigger Than Life.' I say we get some cinephiles together, dress up like cat burglars, break into Fox, and re-program the computer so that it spews out 'Desire' and all the Pre-Code Fox movies, all at once. It would be at least a year before anybody at the company noticed anything was up."

8 comments :

Jeremy Richey said...

It's a strange little film isn't it? It has been years since I last saw it but your post on it pretty much sums up what I remember of the film. This, along with Shalako, is among the only time Bardot appeared in an English language film...shame it couldn't have been of higher quality.

MovieMan0283 said...

I haven't heard of Shalako...is she a lead in it, or is it another cameo?

Rick Olson said...

a slight variation on every quirky what-random-personality-twist-can-think-up-next indie comedy that had come before.

I couldn't agree more about Little Miss Sunshine

MovieMan0283 said...

Yes, the Best Picture nod was perplexing to say the least, although I guess it (sadly) shouldn't have been.

Jeremy Richey said...

Shalako is a European co-production Western starring her and Sean Connery from 68. Great soundtrack but the film is disappointing...still, worth a look.

Ed Howard said...

A nice post, but what I personally liked about Little Miss Sunshine is precisely that it was a throwback to the kind of smart, funny, mildly offbeat, simple comedies that used to be turned out from Hollywood on a regular basis, and which have now been replaced by seemingly endless dull, unfunny "romantic comedies" and shock-a-minute gross-out fests. Diminished expectations maybe, but it was refreshing to see a small, charming, modest movie come out. As a result, the film was badly overhyped, including the Oscar nonsense, but I wouldn't lay that on the film itself so much as on the sad state of the mainstream these days.

MovieMan0283 said...

Ed, I generally agree in that I didn't find Little Miss Sunshine specially offensive, just overrated. Though I don't really see it as being so much a throwback (there seem to be a lot of these quirky films floating around lately, and not just after Sunshine - if anything Wes Anderson may have initiated a second wave).

And I agree that most of the film's more extravagent claims were made by the hype, rather than the film itself.

Dean Treadway said...

What a bizarre movie you've found here. Is that Billy Mumy from "Lost in Space" as the son? Hmmmm...I think I have to see this...but I'll not be expecting much.

I didn't mind LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE much, though I didn't think it was a great comedy by any stretch of the imagination. And I certainly didn't think it deserved the screenplay Oscar. Okay, we get it--the dad is an unsuccessful success lecturer (his character was built on one brick). And given the importance of the subject matter, wouldn't have the son known about his colorblindness and how that would've affected a future he so obviously desires? How about the outlandish cooincidence of the gay character running into his ex at a gas station (as he's buying straight porn, no less)? And, most unbelieveably, here the girl and the grandfather have been working months on this routine--are we really to believe that no one in the family has seen it? Not even the mother, the most even-keeled character in the picture? Come on!!

The cast is good, though, and does what it can with LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. But an overrated movie, nonetheless. There are good comedies out there all the time. But no one wants to see 'em. Two of this year's best movies, SOMERS TOWN and THE PROMOTION, are thoughtful, well-written laffers that won't make more than $1 mil at the box office.

By the way, strangely, I have a movie poster for SHALAKO, but i've never seen the film.