Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Director: Otto Preminger

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By Roderick Heath

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan’s famous debut novel, is a pseudo-tragic morality play flavoured with haute-couture raciness and 10-franc philosophy. Nonetheless, it was a perceptive work that hit a nerve, all the more so for its author’s youth: Sagan, who took her pen name from a character of Marcel Proust’s, was 18 when she wrote it. Otto Preminger’s film version came out four years later. Preminger was a forceful, inventive, but uneven director most at home in dark, intimate narratives, conjuring an hysterical atmosphere fraught with fragmenting assumptions, and creating irony-laden, ever-evolving analyses of whatever material he chose to work with. One of the great scenes of his oeuvre is in Exodus (1960), in which David Opatashu’s relentless interrogation of Sal Mineo slowly peels away the lad’s plucky, aggressive exterior until he confesses the unimaginable pain in his heart. Preminger’s best films work in such a fashion, beginning with a chitinous but brittle sheen, and then digging until a far more complex vision resolves.

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Bonjour Tristesse is one such film. The opening establishes Cecile (Jean Seberg) as one of those blessed creatures who, as Marianne Faithfull would put it, ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair. But far from enjoying her life, she drifts to and fro according to the whims of her playboy father Raymond (David Niven) and several vying boyfriends. All the while, she meditates with bewildered ennui on the events of the previous summer, during which the blissfully pagan lifestyle of her father and herself was first disrupted. Having made their annual retreat to a villa on the Riviera with her father’s squaw of the moment, the platinum-haired, foolish, but likeable Elsa (Mylène Demongeot), Raymond was thrown into a quandary by the arrival of Anne (Deborah Kerr), a fashion designer friend of his deceased wife’s, whom he had forgotten he also had invited.

Such invitations are, of course, code for “come be my concubine for a while.” Anne, a mature and circumspect professional, was disoriented to find Raymond ensconced with Elsa, but campaigned to snare the wayward male, eventually succeeding in drawing a marriage proposal from him. Anne then had attempted to work influence over Raymond and a resentful Cecile, as when she forbade Cecile from dating law student Cyril (Geoffrey Horne) and insisted (quelle horreur!) that she study and resit the philosophy exams she flunked.

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Preminger’s stylistic gambit is to begin in the present-tense with acidic black and white, and then drift into flashbacks composed in bright ice cream colours. The analytical grace of black and white accords with Seberg’s more shaded portrait, as Cecile charges through life with blithe impassivity, barely paying attention when one of her louche society lovers and a casual pick-up in a jazz den start brawling. The moment Cecile, dancing with her father, allows her thoughts to drift back, blotches of hazy blue eat through the image on screen until the bright Mediterranean coast explodes, and the film’s tenor changes immediately to one of kitschy pastels and playful intrigue. The import is clear, establishing the past as a time of happiness and fulsome fun, and the present as grave and regretful, a visual cue to the mystery of what turned Cecile’s life so sour. It also exploits and inverts a cinematic code familiar to, if not readily acknowledged by audiences of the time, when films of presumed seriousness were generally made in black and white and Technicolor was associated with frivolity.

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Preminger subsequently paints Sagan’s story in the declamatory terms of pop art rather than deep psychology, and it’s a smart choice. Sagan’s story was defined as much by elision—what its naïve heroine cannot discern is as important as what she can—and dazzling, distracting surfaces. The cunning narrative relies on the viewer taking as much offence to the prim Anne as Cecile does. Her entrance into the story does not immediately threaten the gaiety of their lives, but Cecile has made clear her utter satisfaction with things as they are. Anne acts with an impolite self-satisfaction that betrays her own insecurity in the situation. In one scene, she enters Cecile’s bedroom when she’s practising yoga and switches off her record player without asking, establishing in subtle, yet definite terms her inability to adjust to anyone else’s rhythm of existence. Cecile’s irritation is readily understandable, but her general brattiness contrasts her own assumptions of maturity. She tosses books to the floor and slams doors in perfunctory shows of anger, and with suddenly acute vigour, jabs a pin into a surrogate doll. An underlying kinkiness to the whole set-up is suggested in the thoughtless intimacy of the father and daughter, which sees them constantly planting kisses on each other, a strain of incestuous desire seemingly better sublimated through Raymond’s young lovers than through the solicitous Anne.

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The story narrows to a wicked point in two specific moments in which Anne is the victim. First, when she arrives, the casual news that Elsa is in residence causes Anne to smash a flowerpot, an action Cecile soon reports in clipped, unfinished sentences to her father, causing Elsa to declare in frustration, “They even finish each other’s sentences! The perfect marriage!” Language—who says what to whom and in what fashion—delineates the borders of family and inclusion. On presuming to become part of their life, Anne says she won’t scold Cecile, but instead try to “influence” her—influence that swiftly enough becomes command. Cecile eventually abandons communication in the present-day scenes, her alternations of laughing disdain and taciturnity stoking the apprehension of those around her.

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The second moment institutes the climax. After Cecile acts successfully on Elsa’s behalf to provoke her father to jealousy, Anne comes across Raymond and Elsa having a tryst in the woods. Cecile stalks Anne to the crucial moment, prancing like a fawn but proving more the serpent in this particular Garden of Eden, and Kerr communicates by expression alone the disorienting force of her humiliation and horror. She drives off in a distraught state and dies in a crash Cecile thinks was suicide. It’s a sequence that is, in its way, as brilliantly staged as any of Hitchcock’s suspense moments, and it resolves the gaudy playfulness of what’s preceded it.

The figure of a young woman whose yearnings lead her to cause, or whose presence causes, destructive acts was clearly dear to Preminger, who had earlier essayed the same theme in several films, especially in his bodice-ripper hoot Forever Amber (1947), Carmen Jones (1954) and his queasily brilliant Angel Face (1952). In the last, a far more psychopathic heroine (Jean Simmons) annihilates her parents and then herself and her lover (both films build to climactic car crashes), and like Cecile, eddied in perturbed, bewildered grief after perceiving her own destructiveness. In the climax of Anatomy of a Murder (1959), James Stewart’s defence attorney lets his opponent walk directly into a trap of his own arrogance, a trap that finally confirms the absence of any definable truth in the case: all that matters is the case that he built. Likewise, Preminger lets his characters declare themselves in broad terms, and then observes them with increasingly lenient, observational intrigue, handing them just enough rope to hang themselves.

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Using the widescreen with compositional grace, he constantly offers lingering group and long shots in which telling details manifest. Sooner or later, the crucial moment arrives, as when his camera sits patiently waiting as Cecilia and a nightclub pick-up dance, only for the other beaux to instigate a fight; or a shot of the strange family gathering on a terrace whilst their maid sneaks mouthfuls of their champagne. There’s a marvelous moment when Cecile returns from having surrendered her virginity to Cyril, attempting, and failing, to coolly light herself a cigarette, and Anne comes to her rescue with solicitous patience.

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The interrogatory approach alters Seberg, with her glassy Midwestern freshness, into a spry and supple assassin and makes blithely gracious man of the world Niven into a childish jackass. The often rigid Kerr gives one of her most comfortable performances from this era, funnily enough, playing a woman defined by her lack of comfort. Unfortunately, Preminger’s fondness for bottle blondes and digging up unpolished starlets to terrorise and/or sleep with yields Demongeot, who delivers an embarrassingly awkward performance early on; yet, she, too, expands her characterisation with some wit as the movie progresses. Horne, a star ingénue for about two minutes at the time, is a total washout. Still, it’s funny to see Martita Hunt, who usually played stern battle-axes, as Cyril’s gaudy, gambling mother. Greco appears on screen as herself, singing the mordant title song by Georges Auric, whose terrific score contorts its core theme through variations of chanson d’amour, hot jazz, and bossa nova, entwining seemingly disparate scenes and moods in unifying motifs.

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A key set piece of Tristesse sees Elsa, who seems at first a cut-out of va-va-voom feminine lushness, but proves herself equipped with the life-love of a nature goddess, leading the others in a communal dance—a state of communal exaltation that also initiates Raymond and Anne’s affair and signals the swiftly approaching crack-up. It’s this mix of indulgence and cynicism, this wide-open perspective, that predicts subsequent films of Euro-anomie, like La Dolce Vita and L’Avventura and best defines Preminger’s films. The brilliant final shot reveals the queasy grief around which the circular narrative tiptoes, whilst achieving a total disintegration, as the self-loathing Cecile stares into a mirror, swathing her sorrow-contorted face in cold cream until she’s a perverted caricature, and the picture blurs and dies.

  • Whit spoke:
    26th/10/2009 to 12:44 pm

    I think it’s time I rent this film. I’m not reading anymore until i see it (again).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/10/2009 to 12:55 pm

    I think Demongeot shows she has the goods by her performance later in the film. I think, rather like Hitchcock, Preminger was working for a caricature in the beginning. Perhaps that also explains why Kerr was such a caricature of an evil stepmother as well. If, as you say, he was viewing the film through Cecile’s eyes, both one-dimensional portrayals at the start make sense.

  • Rod spoke:
    26th/10/2009 to 8:18 pm

    Certainly, Marilyn, beginning with caricatures who reveal complexities is one of Preminger’s recurring gambits, but I’m not sold on Demengeot, in the same way I’m not sold on Jill Haworth in Exodus: they’re both obviously raw and Preminger’s way of handling actors highlights it gruesomely before they begin to loosen up. But again, as you say, Demengeot does give a neat comic performance in the later scenes – her bits in the casino are terrific.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/10/2009 to 8:27 pm

    I really do feel convinced by her. Checking into her filmography, I was astonished to discover that she played Abigail Williams in a French version (translated by Godard) of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. That’s definitely not small potatoes.

  • Rod spoke:
    26th/10/2009 to 8:43 pm

    Yes, I saw that when looking her up. That’s a film I’ve always wanted to see. She was also in a German version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin(!). But she still really bugged me in the early scenes here. Then again, like many foreign actors in Hollywood productions around this time, a lot of her dialogue has been post-synched, which always hurts my ears. One of the down sides to Preminger’s way of handling actors has always seemed to me that if they weren’t entirely self-possessed they could rattle easily, so there’s a lot of dodgy acting by otherwise reliable people in his films.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/10/2009 to 8:52 pm

    He was such a shit. The Hollywood moguls must have embraced him as one of their own.

  • Rod spoke:
    26th/10/2009 to 9:45 pm

    I think he decided to play the vision of a Teutonic hard-ass which Hollywood had already been taught to love and hate by Von Stroheim. People lapped stories of him being a tyrant in the same way they lapped up Hitchcock playing the mordant joker. His actual films however reflect his real background: cultured, Austro-Hungarian-Jewish haute-bourgeois.
    Oh, BTW, forgot to mention before: Sartre, not Godard, wrote the translation for The Crucible.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/10/2009 to 9:48 pm

    Yes, Sartre. I got that wrong. I think Preminger was an arrogant SOB, even if he might have hyped the post he thought Hollywood wanted. You know my opinion about his treatment of Nelson Algren. That wasn’t for show; that was for his own expediency. That he could degrade a perceived social inferior was just the icing on the cake.

  • Rod spoke:
    26th/10/2009 to 11:54 pm

    Oh, certainly an SOB.

  • Rod spoke:
    27th/10/2009 to 8:59 am

    …but not really the conversation of this piece is about…

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