Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Jean Seberg, whose career was much too short, gained her greatest fame when she appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s debut À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960). Godard, like many directors in the French New Wave, adored American B-movies, but it’s fair to say he also had a lot of respect for the mainstream films of such idiosyncratic studio directors as Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger. Therefore it’s no surprise that Godard claimed that Seberg’s character in his film was a continuation of her role of Cécile in Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse of only two years earlier. In both films, it would be possible to argue that Seberg’s young woman is in thrall to an overpowering older man, but where in Godard’s film that man is her occasional boyfriend and gangster Michel, here it’s her father Robert (played by an immaculate David Niven).

There’s an oddly blurred line in the relationship between the two in Preminger’s film — they are very touchy-feely around one another, and share a close confidence — but it is never pushed overtly into incest. Cécile is her father’s daughter, and they have a grand time in the social whirl of Paris, filmed in beautiful monochrome. Robert has a new (young) girlfriend, and the roteness in his daughter’s voice suggests this is a common occurrence. It all looks like high society fun until, during a dance with her father, Cécile’s face clouds over and in a girlish voiceover she speaks of her frustrations, as gradually the screen gives way to the Technicolor remembrances of the Riviera the summer before.

I love the luridly-coloured and set-designed CinemaScope melodramas of the 1950s, and this is an excellent example of the form. The elongated rectangle of the screen seems to allow the space for several different emotional arcs to take place within the same frame, something Preminger is particularly good at choreographing. If Jean Seberg’s character is at the heart of the film, then it’s David Niven’s Robert who motivates the drama. Through its framing and camera movement, the film manages to hold in tension the lightness of Niven’s character, never anything less than charming and skittish, with his effect on those around him. Somehow there seems to be no need for any big conflicts or melodramatic rages — if anything, it’s his capricious charm and sexual voracity that leads those around him to tragedy.

Joining Robert and Cécile at the Riviera is fashion designer Anne, played by Deborah Kerr — closer in age to Niven, and playing the mature older foil to his succession of naive girlfriends. She explicitly wants to reform Robert and to be a mother figure to Cécile, but as their relationship seems to get serious, the latter quickly takes against Anne’s influence and warns her that she shouldn’t expect to change Robert. It’s a complicated game the two women play, and there’s an element of betrayal just as in Godard’s film, but Anne’s involvement in the lives of these two acts as a catalyst to a lot of repressed emotions. There’s a striking scene, for example — striking as much for how brief it is, as for the emotions expressed within it — in which Cécile turns to herself in a mirror and angrily tells her reflection (in voiceover) how much she hates her. Meanwhile, Robert doesn’t take long to reveal his promises to be worthless, as he turns back to his younger girlfriend.

Ultimately there’s a lot of pain and betrayal hidden beneath the glamorous and colour-saturated surfaces that Preminger so masterfully delineates. There’s no clear way out for either of the central characters, except perhaps for that taken by Deborah Kerr’s Anne, and by the end the shimmering black-and-white sequences in Paris seem literally drained of colour, not to mention joy. Yet if a film with this title was never hiding the bleakness at its core, it’s still a wonderfully staged production with plenty of pleasures along the way.

Director Otto Preminger; Writer Arthur Laurents (based on the novel by Françoise Sagan); Cinematographer Georges Périnal; Starring Jean Seberg, David Niven, Deborah Kerr; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 30 August 2013.


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