Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

David Sanjek

Draws much of its visual and dramatic effectiveness from Preminger's intelligent use of the screen process of the 1950s, Cinemascope.

Bonjour Tristesse

Director: Otto Preminger
Cast: Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Jean Seberg, Mylene Demongeot, Geoffrey Horne
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: Columbia
First date: 1958
US DVD Release Date: 2003-12-16

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.





The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.


Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.


Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.


'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.


10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.


'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.


The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.