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.
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.
“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 an undervalued and underappreciated film. It holds up magnificently and its influence alone shows the value that many often overlook.
VERDICT – 4 STARS