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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.