The name Otto Preminger (1906-86) is probably not familiar to most current audiences. Some may even recall his performance as Mr. Freeze in the 1960s Batman tv series rather than his 40 years of filmmaking. During his commercial heyday, Preminger cut a memorable figure. Baldheaded, imperious, and quick with his tongue, he described actors as material at his disposal, not collaborators in a collective enterprise.
His movies of the 1960s took aim at particular targets: the judicial system in Anatomy of a Murder (1959); the formation of the state of Israel in Exodus (1960); the U.S. government in Advise and Consent (1962); and the Vatican in The Cardinal (1963). These films might be seen as predecessors of the miniseries format, addressing controversial subject matter through the format of the multi-character, temporally expansive, and star-studded blockbuster. Still, some viewers felt Preminger never equaled his first success, the romantically lush film noir Laura (1944), and others treasure his other noir contributions, particularly Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950) and Angel Face (1952).
Preminger’s films typically adopt a nonjudgmental point of view, allowing audiences to assess characters without directorial intrusion. He rarely cuts scenes in the typical Hollywood manner, oscillating from close-up to reaction shot. Instead, he keeps several individuals on screen in a master shot. This comes across, in Andrew Sarris’ words, as “the stylistic expression of the eternal conflict, not between right and wrong, but between the right-wrong on one side and the right-wrong on the other, a representation of the right-wrong in all of us as our share of the human condition.” The practice demands that the viewer examines every scene and behavior carefully.
Bonjour Tristesse (1958) epitomizes this modus operandi. Adapted from Françoise Sagan’s best-selling French novel, the film depicts the eventually tragic triangulation of a wealthy playboy and widower Raymond (David Niven), his worldly daughter Cecile (Jean Seberg), and Raymond’s old friend Anne (Deborah Kerr). Father and daughter lead an emotionally uncommitted life of privilege. Money seems no object, and other than their devotion to one another, their many romantic assignations are fleeting. Whatever sadness the title of the film alludes to in either of their lives is easily laid aside by another glass of champagne, another fashionable outfit, another night on the town.
The movie opens in black and white in present day Paris, then turns to color as the narrative covers the previous summer, which Raymond and Cecile spent vacationing on the Riviera. Raymond passes his time with a dizzy but delightful companion, Elsa (Mylene Demongeot), another in a long line of transient relationships. Cecile, 17, has failed her school exams, which fazes neither her nor her father, and occupies her time with the physical pleasures of the setting. When she encounters a neighbor, Philippe (Geoffrey Horne), an attractive young man in his mid-20s studying law, a relationship ensues.
The third person in the triangle, Anne, is a fashion designer who abhors the irresponsibility that her friend and his daughter regard as their virtual birthright. Although she first seems a prude, Ann eventually succumbs to Raymond’s very evident charms. He, in turn, casts aside the sequence of empty affairs for a permanent relationship with a peer of substance. Cecile, however, suspects that the impending marriage will transform her own relationship with Raymond. He appears more than willing to support his daughter’s absence of ambition, and the film hints at an incestuous longing between the pair. Cecile’s machinations lead, eventually, to calamity.
Bonjour Tristesse draws much of its visual and dramatic effectiveness from Preminger’s intelligent use of the screen process of the 1950s, Cinemascope. He often includes all three of his central characters in a single shot, achieving dramatic tension by the way they move and shift around one another. As astute as the visual dynamics of the film are, the performances are equally skilled. Kerr’s Anne is both prim and insistent. You simultaneously sympathize with her criticisms and object to her implicit rejection of passion or playfulness. Niven’s indisputable charm makes Raymond hard to resist, despite or because of his middle-aged infatuation with preserving his figure and prolonging his fun. And Seberg’s Cecile runs the gamut from pouty to profound in her comprehension of the ramifications of her behavior. (Seberg, it should be added, was one of Preminger’s “discoveries,” and Bonjour Tristesse only her second film.)
While some may be put off by Preminger’s glossy presentation of the idle rich, his direction in Bonjour Tristesse engages the mind while it stimulates the senses. Jonathan Rosenbaum has observed how Preminger’s “narrative lines are strewn with deceptive counter-paths, shifting viewpoints, and ambiguous characters who perpetually slip out of static categories and moral definitions.” The filmmaker’s desire to challenge an audience to read behavior rather than dissecting it for them recalls Jean Renoir’s comment in The Rules of the Game (1939), that the tragedy in life is that all people have their reasons. Preminger’s characters act out the full range of their conflicting motivations, without achieving conventional closure. It makes for messy lives, but it also makes for emotionally insinuating moviemaking.