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: “Breathless”

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There are certain movies that will always be remembered for their undeniable influence. Such is the case with “Breathless”, the first feature film from acclaimed director Jean-Luc Godard and a major player in the French New Wave of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. French New Wave was a bold and experimental movement that toyed with new techniques of filmmaking and storytelling. The stories were often rooted in and influenced by the social climate of the time and ambiguity, realism, and sometimes romanticism were key tools used to craft these stories.

French New Wave also had several distinguishable visual techniques that set it apart from the contemporary filmmaking of that time. New Wave directors experimented with long takes, creative tracking shots, handheld cameras, and fast scene changes. These techniques originated in low-budget necessity but they were also intended to buck the traditional brand of filmmaking. Godard and “Breathless” were instrumental in defining the movement. Nearly every technique unique to French New Wave can be found in “Breathless” and it has certainly made an important mark in cinema history.

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The movie follows around a young criminal named Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo). His forte is stealing cars and petty crimes but things go bad when a simple car heist results in him killing a cop. He ends up on the run in Paris trying to secure some money to make his escape. Michel is not a good guy and it’s hard to get that impression from the film. But an argument could be made that, in a sense, the movie glamorizes Michel’s lifestyle. There is some legitimacy to that but I think it overlooks a major part if the story. Godard does try to emphasis a sense of cool about Michel through his freewheeling attitude, dangling cigarettes, and thumb rubs across his lips. But I feel his coolness is more his perception of himself – a misguided perception more rooted in arrogance than reality.

It’s a combination of his arrogance and his heart that proves to be his biggest obstacles. He fashions himself after movie stars such as Humphrey Bogart and he seems infatuated with his own press. Throughout the movie we constantly see him buying newspapers in an attempt to get information no doubt, but also to bask in his own headlines. He walks the streets of Paris, impervious to his wanted status, with nothing more than a pair of sunglasses to hide his identity. Even as scrolling marquees across the city report of the police manhunt drawing closer, Michel still takes to the streets of Paris with an almost cocky sense of invincibility.

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He also finds himself smitten with Patricia (Jean Seberg), a young American student at the Sorbonne and aspiring journalist. She’s a seemingly insecure young lady who ends up falling for Michel but with an ever-present sense of uncertainty. Michel often insults her and talks down to her yet she grows more and more fond of him. I believe it’s because she sees through his tough guy facade and finds something she can cling onto regardless of how unwise it is. She struggles with whether to stay with Michel or not but even after finding out what he’s done she can’t just walk away. In a very different way Michel finds himself in the same boat. It’s some compelling stuff.

“Breathless” is a little rough around the edges yet it’s exhilarating cinema. Much of the script was written as they were filming and it features a lot of improvisation. But I love the spontaneity that comes along with that both narratively and visually. Hand-held cameras, a signature of the movement, are tremendously effective both in giving it a unique style as well as capturing some of the beauty of Paris. In fact, “Breathless” features some of the best views of the city you’ll find in cinema. The movie is also recognized for its fresh and bold use of jump cuts – a film editing technique where a scene makes quick jumps forward. There are so many filmmaking devices in “Breathless” that have influenced directors for years and still do today. And even though the storytelling structure may feel a bit jarring, the film is hypnotic and its mark on cinema cannot be overstated.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

5 PHENOMENAL FRENCH LANGUAGE FILMS

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Years ago as I began to grow as a movie fan I opened myself up to foreign cinema. I can’t express how thankful I am for that decision. And while I still don’t see as many foreign language films as I should, over the years foreign cinema has introduced me to some truly great movies. From the far east to the middle east, from South America to Central Europe, there are wonderful filmmakers making movies all over the globe. While I’ve dipped my toes into the films of many different countries, I’ve found French cinema to be one of my favorites. So I thought it would be fun to look at five phenomenal French language films. This is the first Phenomenal 5 dedicated to foreign cinema but it won’t be the last. Now there are many French films that I haven’t seen so it would be silly to call this the definitive list. But there is no denying that these five French movies are nothing short of phenomenal.

MON ONCLE#5 – “MON ONCLE”  Jacques Tati only made six feature-length movies but that’s all it took to establish him as a fantastic filmmaker. “Mon Oncle” is the consummation of Tati’s many talents all wrapped into one delightful creation. The film features Tati’s signature style of visual storytelling and comedy as well as his familiar critiques of materialism, consumerism, and social elitism. But at its heart is a very funny story featuring one of the most lovable characters you’ll find – socially awkward but certainly lovable. Monsieur Hulot’s sweet and friendly demeanor is infectious and he’s always content regardless of his state. But perhaps my favorite thing about this film is the incredible sense of community that Tati is able to capture. Hulot’s working class neighborhood is filled with life, energy, and an assortment of entertaining characters. Those things also perfectly describe “Mon Oncle”.

#4 – “BREATHLESS”BREATHLESS – Acclaimed director Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature-length film was “Breathless” from 1960. Long considered one of the signature movies from the French New Wave, “Breathless” remains to this day a highly influential film. In the movie Godard went to great lengths to buck the traditional trends in filmmaking by using several innovative visual techniques now forever associated with the French New Wave. But “Breathless” isn’t all about style. There’s also a very good story born out of the social climate of 1960 Paris. At first I had a tough time gathering my thoughts on the movie. But after processing the film and looking closer at the story, it has become a true favorite of mine. Jean-Paul Belmondo and the lovely Jean Seberg are fantastic and Godard gives us some of the best street views of Paris. Groundbreaking and highly entertaining.

MR HULOT#3 – “MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY – I really want there to be variety in every Phenomenal 5 I do, but for this list I couldn’t leave off either if these two Jacques Tati classics, the aforementioned “Mon Oncle” and “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”. “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” is my favorite Tati film and one of my favorite comedies of all time. Every ounce of Tati’s creative genius is on display in this film. As a director he has an incredible eye for structuring each scene and capturing each moment. In front of the camera as Mr. Hulot he brings out the comic brilliance of legends such as Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd. “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” is a very visual comedy with a heavy emphasis on sight gags and perfectly timed humor. There are so many great laughs in this simple but hilarious picture and it’s a profound example of how true comedy can be done without the gimmicks and clichés we often see today.

#2 – “AMELIE”AMELIE – One of the most delightful French films I have ever scene is “Amelie” and delightful is the perfect word for it. It’s the story of a shy and reserved waitress and all of the quirky individuals that make up her everyday life. She’s a lonely soul who tries to overcome it through her playful imagination. The perfectly cast Audrey Tautou is magnificent as Amelie who lives her life in beautifully filmed Montmartre. But there’s also the wonderful assortment of side characters that give this film such life. There’s the mysterious painter neighbor, her wacky cafe coworkers and regular customers, the mean jerk of a grocer. I can go on and on but regardless of who they are, Amelie has a positive impact on their lives. There is so much charm mixed with laugh-out-loud hilarity that permeates this entire picture. Gorgeous cinematography, brilliant writing, and pitch-perfect performances. “Amelie” is a joy.

The 400 Blows (1959)#1 – “THE 400 BLOWS” – Much like “Breathless”, Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” was a pivotal film in the French New Wave. It’s arguably the most powerful movie about adolescence and it’s an intensely personal film for the acclaimed director. Based on Truffaut’s own childhood, “The 400 Blows” looks at the life of young Antoine in early 1950’s Paris. He’s viewed as a troublemaker by the adults in his life and he finds the streets to be his only refuge. There are several stinging and uncomfortable scenes but all of them lead to the final shot which is one of the most potent in film history. There is such feeling and emotional pop throughout as we see this challenging and often times difficult world through young Antoine’s eyes. There’s also an undeniable technique and style behind the movie’s visual presentation. It’s an amazing expression of Truffaut’s vision and when combined with the brilliant screenplay the result is a glorious piece of cinema history.

So there are my five picks for the most phenomenal films in French cinema. Agree or disagree – please leave you thoughts below. Also be watching throughout the next several days as I review several of these and other French films on the site.