REVIEW: “Bonjour Tristesse”

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While writing an upcoming blog piece I was compelled to revisit the morally murky waters of “Bonjour Tristesse”. Otto Preminger’s crafty 1958 British-American drama was based on the popular novel by Françoise Sagan. At the time the film danced precariously close to the edge of early cinema standards, causing censors plenty of headaches and heartburn.

In some ways “Bonjour Tristesse” was ahead of its time. Its style of storytelling, its willingness to look at taboo subjects, its nonjudgemental perspectives. All of these were things that would begin showing up more in films shortly after. Upon release critics didn’t necessarily see it that way and the film wasn’t particularly well received. But one of its early champions was none other than Jean-Luc Godard who two years later would make his pivotal French New Wave classic “Breathless”, a film that in some ways found inspiration in “Bonjour Tristesse”.

Preminger loves to play with contrasts. Look no further than to the story itself. It swings back and forth between present day and the events of a recent two-week vacation. Both periods are told from the perspective of a young teen named Cécile (Jean Seberg). In the present we spend an evening with her and her wealthy playboy father Raymond (David Niven) as they hop from one expensive nightclub to another. With them is Raymond’s blonde flavor of the evening and several different suitors vying for Cécile’s attention. All of these scenes are presented in black and white.

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Contrast that with the vivid, bright colors of the vacation flashbacks. The beautiful French Riviera setting is where we get the meat of the story. Cécile and her father are staying at their oceanside villa with his latest fling – a younger, spacey beauty named Elsa (Mylene Demongeot). Their time of fun and frolicking gets a bit complicated when the cultured and proper Anne (Deborah Kerr) arrives. Ever the libertine, Raymond doesn’t hide his attraction to Anne. Meanwhile Cécile grows frustrated with the strict and starchy authority Anne imposes. The various conflicts that follow work together like clever, revelatory puzzle pieces.

The bright, colorful vacation sequences are nice to look at, but they offer more than just beautiful scenery. Through them we learn the reasons for Cécile’s obvious melancholy in the present day scenes. Hiding behind the façade of riches, parties, and the perfect vacation spot lies a subtle repugnancy and an undeniable sadness that slowly simmers to the surface as the movie moves along. Cécile’s emotions are the focus. In fact, the color and black-and-white contrast is directly tied to Cécile’s changed emotional state.

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“Bonjour Tristesse” takes the audience down several winding narrative paths. There are no jarring twists or sudden diversions. Instead it deliberately and patiently unfolds. Several of the characters take on slow, chameleon-like transformations. The characters are hard to read and various actions change our perception of them sometimes more than once throughout the film. The script lays this out nicely but the performances are just as important.

David Niven is solid as always, effectively selling us his hedonism. He will often carouse about seemingly unaware of his selfishness or the effects of it. We see it in his throwaway attitudes towards his mistresses as well as the oddly affectionate relationship with his daughter. Deborah Kerr is brilliant and her performance provides a pivotal shift in tone and narrative. But it is Seberg whose light shines brightest. She is magnificent as she maneuvers from an innocent, playful pixie to a jaded young woman drowning in disappointment and melancholy. Much like the movie at the time, there were several criticisms about her performance. Personally I feel they are failing to see her performance as a deliberate and cohesive whole.

It would be a mere two years before Seberg would set the French New Wave on fire, but in “Bonjour Tristesse” she and Preminger were playing with several elements that the New Wave filmmakers would take to new levels. It meanders a bit and at times feels a little soapy, but its intelligence, craftiness, and style can’t be denied. “Bonjour Tristesse” is and undervalued and underappreciated film. It holds up magnificently and its influence alone shows the value that many often overlook.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “The Sundowners”

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What is a sundowner you may ask? In this film from 1960 one character defines a sundowner as “someone whose home is where the sun goes down.” It was an Australian term used for roamers who traveled across the countryside taking one job at a time. They would pitch their tent wherever they were at the end of the day and that was their home for the night. Richard Zinnemann’s film follows a family of sundowners who move from place to place taking sheep herding jobs. The film bombed in the United States but did well overseas and would go on to earn five Oscar nominations including one for Best Film.

Robert Mitchum plays Paddy Carmody, a nomad at heart who has no desire to settle down in 1920s Australia. He is perfectly content with being constantly on the move and working small jobs here and there. But over time Paddy’s insatiable wanderlust begins to clash with the desires of his wife Ida (Deborah Kerr) and his teenaged son Sean (Michael Anderson). They believe the time is come to consider settling down. They’ve grown tired of constantly being on the go and Sean is at an age where he wants to experience life and set out on his own path. Paddy’s stubbornness and his family’s patience provide the film its central contention.

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Some critics pointed out that there isn’t a lot of plot in “The Sundowners”. That’s essentially true although the film’s intent is to be a sprawling tale of the family’s lives, love, and rugged endurance. We follow them along the Australian backcountry as they drive a large herd of sheep, contend with a sweeping wildfire, and live off what the land provides. This allows for some truly beautiful, sweeping scenes that vividly capture the Australian countryside. The film was originally set to be shot in Arizona, but Zinnemann petitioned hard to spend the extra money and shoot it on location. It was a good decision. The landscapes are anaccurate setting and the story feels perfectly in place. And some scenes, like the aforementioned wildfire are shot with such tenacity and skill. Simply put, the movie looks great.

The family encounters several interesting people along the way. They hire and befriend an Englishman and fellow roamer named Rupert. Peter Ustinov would receive an Oscar nomination for the role. There are also several other interesting faces that pop up when Ida convinces Paddy to take on a stint at a sheep shearing station. She hopes the time in one place will soften him to the idea of settling down here. It’s at this remote station that their family dynamic takes some dramatic turns which sets up the rest of the film.

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As for the performances, Mitchum is rock-solid as always. His Paddy is a tough, salt-of-the-earth fellow, but one whose stubbornness threatens to alienate the family the holds most dear. Mitchum fits right into the character although his Aussie accent is a bit erratic. Kerr is as brilliant as always. Her Isa puts off tough and rugged pioneer vibes but also maintains a distinct femininity. Kerr would earn one of the six Oscar nominations of her career for this role. Amazingly she never won an acting Oscar but the Academy did give her the honorary “Whoops, We Screwed Up” award in 1994. The supporting work was uniformly strong and it too gained critical praise.

“The Sundowners” does run a tad too long and there is an occasional lull or two. The absence of a more defined plot may be an issue for some as well. But the movie does a great job of selling its characters and drawing us to them. I really liked the family and I wanted to see how their story plays out. I also appreciated how grounded the story feels. The film never embraces the sentimentality that many family dramas are consumed by. It just wants us to get to know these people and to experience the life they live. Personally that was enough for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS