Thursday Editor’s Pick: Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

by on April 24, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri April 27 thru Fri May 3 at 1:30, 3:30, 5:30, 7:30, 9:30 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

The last day to catch Film Forum’s stunning DCP restoration of Preminger’s scope compositions of Jean Seberg gallivanting in the Riviera, which Nick Pinkerton of The Village Voice considers of the 1950s’ “great underappreciated films.”

Richard Brody, also for The New Yorker:

Preminger’s caustic melodrama stars Jean Seberg as Cecile, a frivolous, sybaritic French girl of 17 who lives with her wealthy and philandering widowed father in all but incestuous complicity. While simmering with him on the Riviera, she finds her freedom threated by the his sudden plan to marry her late mother’s best friend, a stern, orderly fashion designer, and does her best to break up the couple, wit disastrous results. The spare, cynical drama gives rise to some of Preminger’s most ingenious stylistic flourishes, starting with the flashback structure, Cecile narrates from the standpoint of winder in Paris, a present tense tat unfolds in glossy black-and-white images pierced by her self-accusing stares into the camera. The past is depicted in sumptuous color, which renders the pleasures of sun, sea, and sky heavy with doom. The best is saved for last: at a climactic moment, offscreen voices conjure a staggering coup de théâtre that brings the dénouement to life in a series of indelible images. A brilliant, dialectical filmmaker, Premingers extracts the last ounce of anguish from the anguish of the mute witness.


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

Jean-Luc Godard conceived Jean Seberg’s character in Breathless as an extension of her role in this 1958 Otto Preminger film: the restless teenage daughter of a bored, decaying playboy (David Niven), she tries to undermine what might be her father’s last chance for happiness, a romance with an Englishwoman (Deborah Kerr). Arguably, this is Preminger’s masterpiece: working with a soapy script by Arthur Laurents (by way of Francoise Sagan’s novel), Preminger turns the melodrama into a meditation on motives and their ultimate unknowability. Long takes and balanced ‘Scope compositions are used to bind the characters together; Preminger uses the wide screen not to expand the spectacle, but to narrow and intensify the drama.

Anthony Lane, also for The New Yorker:

If you can endure the opening minutes—creaky British acting and rear-screen projection to match—then the rest of “Bonjour Tristesse” will offer its riveting rewards. No work enshrines so neatly the director’s desire to cast a calm eye on the flaky and the florid. David Niven plays a merry widower, splitting his idleness between Paris and the South of France; Jean Seberg is his daughter, and their rapport—all first names and kisses on the lips—is the most unsettling sight in the movie. Their life of coasting hits a reef when the father proposes to a flame-haired designer (Deborah Kerr) who comes to stay in the sun, importing the values of the grownup world. A plan is hatched to defeat her, and from that silliness comes a tragic mistake. All involved are at their peak: Niven bravely denting his carefree image, Seberg both cruel and unknowing in her halter-neck dress, and Preminger staying with her right up to the devastation of the final shot, a face staring into a mirror.


Francois Truffaut gushes over Seberg:

Cinema is an art of the woman, this is, of the actress. The director’s work consists in getting pretty women to do pretty things. For me, the great moments of cinema are when the director’s gifts mesh with the gifts of an actress: Griffith and Lillian Gish, Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett, Renoir and Simone Simon, Hitchcock and Joan Fontaine, Rossellini and Anna Magnani, Ophuls and Danielle Darrieux, Fellini and Giulietta Masina, Vadim and Brigitte Bardot. Now we can add Preminger and Jean Seberg to that list.
When Jean Seberg is on screen, which is all the time, you can’t look at anything else. Her every movement is graceful, each glance is precise. The shape of her head, her silhouette, her walk, everything is perfect; this kind of sex appeal hasn’t been seen on the screen. It is designed, controlled, directed to the nth degree by her director, who is, they say, her fiance. I wouldn’t be surprised, given the kind of love one needs to obtain such perfection. In the blue shorts slit on the side, in pirate pantaloons, in a skirt, an evening gown, a bathing suit, a man’s shirt with the shirttails out, or tied in front over her stomach, or wearing a corsage and behaving herself (but not for long), Jean Seberg, short blond hair on a pharoh’s skull, wide-open blue eyes with a glint of boyish malice, carries the entire weight of this film on her tiny shoulders. It is Otto Preminger’s love poem to her.



Keith Uhlich for Time Out New York:

Otto Preminger’s bracing study of sick European souls opens in Paris, with rakish playboy Raymond (Niven) and his amoral daughter, Cecile (Seberg), on an all-hours whirlwind. Dinner parties, drinks and dancing, flitting randomly between partners: It’s the high life, of a sort. But the chilly black-and-white cinematography and Cecile’s dead-eyed stare tell a different, more doleful story. After a stoic chanteuse starts singing the title track, our aloof heroine recalls—in gorgeously saturated color—last year’s sun-dappled summer on the Riviera, when her cultured and conscientious godmother, Anne Larson (Kerr), paid a fateful visit.
Preminger invites us to observe Anne upending Cecile’s carefree existence and the teen not so kindly retaliating, and in other hands, the doom-laden narrative might come off as prurient or lurid. Yet the director uses the expansive CinemaScope frame and his eye for luxuriant, clinical mise en scéne to soberly probe rather than gleefully prod (there’s a trenchant upstairs-downstairs composition in which a servant swigs champagne in front of her obliviously hard-partying superiors), and the cast is across-the-board exemplary. Niven and Kerr keenly satirize their onscreen iconographies—the cad and the goody-goody, respectively—but it’s Seberg who cuts deepest. This was the actor’s second collaboration with Preminger, after her unfairly panned debut in the 1957 epic Saint Joan, and her naive allure is just right for a character entirely devoid of a moral center. Seberg’s performance was particularly enthralling to a young cinephile named Jean-Luc Godard; we all know the breathless results of that encounter.



David Thomson in Have You Seen…?

The rather brittle Francoise Sagan novel makes a remarkable film. Shot by George Perinal in an intriguing mixture of black & white and color, “Bonjour Tristesse” is a rare picture of a spoiled child who infects the world with her malign selfishness. It is a very challenging part, and there are scenes of Seberg regarding herself in the mirror that take one straight back to the power of Preminger’s “Angel Face.” Indeed, in many ways it is the same character, and the Viennese director shows himself an expert of pathological behavior. Preminger makes humane and touching characters out of these people – and far better than the book – manages to show their fondness for Cecile no matter the damage she does to them.
Set in Paris and the Riviera, and filmed there and in London in CinemaScope, this is one more of those films that put the lie to the canard that Scope was ill suited to intimate space. In addition, a great deal is gained from the melancholy score by Georges Auric and the designs of Roger Furse. As so often with Preminger, the romantic attitudes of the characters are beautifully summed up in their use of space and movement. Far from heavy-handed, Preminger sometimes showed a lightness and a sympathy with the woman’s point of view that remind one of Max Ophuls.


Christian Keathley has an in-depth formal breakdown for Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism.

David Sanjek for PopMatters:

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.
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.) 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.


Ed Howard for Only the Cinema:

Bonjour Tristesse is, like many of Otto Preminger’s films, an extended exercise in toying with the problems of audience identification and tone. The film shifts, in its first ten minutes, from a somber black and white prologue in which Cecile (Jean Seberg) and her father Raymond (David Niven) seem subtly discontented in their upper-crust lifestyle, to a gorgeous Technicolor flashback in which everything is breezy, carefree, and fun for the pair and Raymond’s latest fling Elsa (Mylène Demongeot). Preminger injects the color into the film slowly, fading in some blue ocean waves over Cecile’s shoulder as she dances, then irising out from the center of the image with a burst of color. The shift to Technicolor highlights the contrast between the two Ceciles we see, one numb and disconnected, the other vibrant and almost relentlessly sunny. The film tracks Cecile’s downfall as her father abandons his carefree ways to marry the matriarchal Anne (Deborah Kerr), who immediately assumes a domineering, motherly attitude towards the defiantly flighty Cecile. Preminger’s brilliance lies in the way he gets the audience irrevocably on Cecile’s side — it’s hard not to love Seberg’s smiley, unrestrained performance and to sympathize with her desire for freedom — only to pull the rug out as he delves more and more into the selfish, willful, and vengeful aspects of this charming girl’s personality. The film remains ambiguous, right up to its final black and white closeup of Seberg’s agonized face, as to whether Anne or Cecile is the real victim in this battle of wills.
As always, Preminger’s direction is fascinating, his distinctive roving camera framing and reframing the characters in various couplings and trios, emphasizing Anne’s intrusion on Cecile’s carefree life by placing her in dominant positions within the frame, always looming over the younger girl. And yet Preminger hardly makes her an unredeemed “evil stepmother” character, infusing her with unexpected pathos while Kerr plays her as a complex, well-meaning woman who is simply ill-suited to the morally loose, privileged existence enjoyed by Cecile and Raymond. The film also provides a dazzling showcase for Seberg in her second role, which Preminger conceived as a comeback attempt after she was roundly mocked for her debut in his Saint Joan the year before. The American critics mostly didn’t bite this time either, but Seberg’s wide-eyed naivete and cheerful bombast made her a curiously effective Joan of Arc, and an even better Cecile. Of course, at least some French critics caught on to what Preminger and Seberg are up to here, and her performance in Bonjour Tristesse directly brought the young actress to the attention of Jean-Luc Godard, who immediately cast her in his own debut feature. Godard picked up on the film’s purposeful tonal ambivalence and Seberg’s deftness in conveying a character who is at once charming and ruthless. He famously said that Seberg’s Patricia in Breathless was a continuation of Cecile’s arc: “I could have taken the last shot of Preminger’s film and started after dissolving to a title, ‘Three Years Later.'”



John Orr for Senses of Cinema:

Bonjour Tristesse is more opaque, more ambiguous and more ambitious. It transforms the noir themes of Fallen Angel and Angel Face into an existential fable that captures the spirit of Françoise Sagan’s novel but does much more. The film shows Preminger’s powers of widescreen composition at their height and draws in the earlier triad of motifs. Binary settings and balcony sequences explore the porous boundaries of the public and the private, and virtual incest cues the presence of the hidden and forbidden. At times, as discarded lover Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) notes, Raymond and Cécile are less like father and daughter and more like a married couple that don’t need proper sentences to communicate.The Preminger binary here is a double contrast of time and place. Cécile narrates her summer of sadness on the Côte d’Azur from the standpoint of an autumnal Paris. Locations at Le Lavendou are in glorious colour; Paris is in black and white. On the coast, Cécile and her group join revellers in a joyous snake dance (filmed in long fluent crane shots) in the town square. In Paris, she is down in a jazz cellar, isolated, the episode fragmented, fought over by two guys for whom she feels nothing. In contrast to his enclosed Paris apartment, the rich eligible Raymond has a bright summer house overlooking the coast with wrap-around terrace on two floors. All rooms and windows open onto the terrace so characters move in and out between them (and the camera fluently follows) as if the house were both a stage set with no closed doors and a film set with spatial transparency. The mise en scène is an arena of performance and this, acting-wise, is the most performative in style of all his films.
The sequence where Cécile has set up the trap for Anne to discover Raymond in flagrante with Elsa is framed as series of sweeping long-shots with Cécile furtively tracking Anne from the edge of the frame and watching her watch the evidence of betrayal, the couple themselves off-screen, their voices uncomfortably close. A series of long panning shots then traces Anne running back to the house in despair with Cécile in pursuit, again at the edge of the frame. The flashback return centres Cécile once more, talking up sadness as remorse in front of a mirror in the jazz cellar – still an unreliable narrator not so much of events themselves as their true meaning, like Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter) in Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953). The Cahiers critics’ adulation of Preminger’s coastal mise en scène soon translated into New Wave practice. We can see here some of the elements that will emerge in the coastal sequences of Jules et Jim (François Truffaut, 1961) and Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965), not to mention the vacation films of Eric Rohmer. The inside-outside formula of the terrace is taken over by Godard in the balcony-apartment sequences in Pierrot where Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Marianne (Anna Karina) murder Karina’s lover. But with his time-looping and discontinuity shots, Godard bides farewell to classical narration forever. It is he, not Preminger, who signs its death warrant. But it is Preminger who has enabled him to do it.



Roderick Heath for Ferdy on Films:

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.
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.


Eric Henderson for Slant:

Preminger is due for an upswing, and Bonjour Tristesse will be one of the cornerstones of his rejuvenated canonical standing. Preminger generates an enormous amount of suspense with the promise of connecting Cecile’s two disparate moods. A first viewing of Bonjour Tristesse—and, to some extent, many other Preminger films—tends to accentuate the seeming multitude of faults even as one revels in Preminger’s remarkable filmmaking savvy. For instance, Preminger occasionally seems to be putting undue stress on the most salacious elements of Francoise Sagan’s potboiler, allowing the characters’ preoccupations with sex to be vocalized in censor-baiting, cheeky dialogue, and pushing the vague suggestions of an incestuous bond between Cecile and Raymond until it can no longer be ignored (she dances with a paramour, she dances with her father, and the identical gestures seem to indicate they’re one and the same with Cecile).
But, miraculously, most of those faults eventually reveal themselves to be extraordinary attributes. It seems as though Preminger is working in Sirk territory, deliberately using the glossy, surface-concerned nature of Hollywood filmmaking in the ’50s as a means of distancing himself from plot minutiae and looking at the larger picture. (I stress the “seems as though” to emphasize that one of Preminger’s chief strengths as an auteur—the ability to turn any given scene, even those consisting merely of three or four characters trading banter, into fantastically complex dance-like studies of malleable moods and actions—is present in Bonjour Tristesse in spades.) Like so many a Sirk film, Bonjour Tristesse is a film about women and their wheeling dealings. Fassbinder once famously wrote that Sirk films were distinguishable from other films because “you see women thinking.” One has to assume that he’d come to the same conclusion about Bonjour Tristesse: Women are constantly in charge, pulling men’s strings (or sailboat towlines), and it’s the men who react and not the reverse. The only incident in the film when Anne discovers that she doesn’t control Raymond is devastating.



Henderson oontinues:

Jean-Luc Godard, who at the time was still one of France’s most notable film critics, was one of the film’s early champions, and that’s all too appropriate, because, in retrospect, Bonjour Tristesse also reveals itself to be ahead of what would become a cliché in the European art cinema of the ’60s. Namely, its primary concern is the spiritual and moral decay of the idle upper class, and it came two years before Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (their very titles conflict with each other) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. And if through their shared acknowledgment that even a life of immoral blitheness can still be a carnival pegs Bonjour Tristesse as a closer relation with the former film, the devastating conclusions Cecile comes to discover are every bit as haunting and life-altering as those in the formidable cinema of Antonioni. And Preminger also shares Antonioni’s fascination with microscopic sociological examinations of subtly shifting group dynamics and how they can constrict people into a virtual immobility, only he allows them some measure of freedom. That makes their tragedy even greater—even without being pinned against Antonioni’s ubiquitous white wall of inevitability, the inhabitants of Bonjour Tristesse still manage to back themselves into a corner of misery.


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