In retrospect, Otto Preminger’s career is that of the classic enfant terrible; an auteur long before the word could even be coined in American movies and whose penchant for pushing the boundaries of what was then considered ‘moral decency’ not only chronically frustrated the director, it brought him into constant conflict with authority figures. Unconventional to a fault, and some might argue – uncouth to boot (though no one could deny Preminger’s preeminence for the finer things in life), Otto lived large, and largely by his own mantra and edicts. His interracial affair with Dorothy Dandridge turned heads, as did his pig-headed resolve to keep producing and/or directing movies with counterculture themes; drug addiction, rape, homosexuality, and, miscegenation – all of it considered aberrant behavior in the button-down 1950’s.
Somewhere in the back of Preminger’s mind there must have been a frustrated actor yearning to break free. He was frequently vituperative in his drive to have his own way, or rather, to see his vision preserved and reflected back at him from the movie screen. He was also as autocratic about maintaining final cut when his movies were shown on television. Preminger actually sued Columbia after their loan out of his Anatomy of a Murder resulted in several different edits being shown in primetime, depending on the network airing it. Preminger lost that lawsuit. But he advanced his reputation as a creative despot. Once asked the loaded question about ‘obscenity’ in the movies; the implication being Otto was being indulgent, merely to shock the moralists of his own generation, Preminger (seemingly amused by the query) simply replied “I don’t make obscene movies. I want to make adult movies…that is, movies about adult behavior.”
In retrospect, one can empathize with Preminger’s dilemma as an artist. For here was a man who sought to cast the pall of daylight – or at least its kilowatt equivalent in movie stardust – upon the readily known, though less frequently discussed, and arguably, as yet undisclosed thematic influences affecting the human condition in cinematic terms; social, moral, religious and otherwise; to deconstruct and, conceivably comprehend these more disagreeable aspects, intellectually critiqued apart from their titillation to be typecast as simply salacious. After all, Preminger hated hypocrisy. Arguably, he spent his entire career as a champion fighting against it.
Perhaps even now, despite our own indiscriminate and largely tasteless fetishism to show everything in the movies, some 28 years after Otto’s death and at least 50 odd more removed from the time they were made, do Preminger’s films continue to reveal – rather than revel in – some fundamentally flawed universality about the human condition. Preminger makes us think, not only about the characters on his screen but about ourselves, our relation to the people and principles we are compelled to observe at a safe (though not entirely comfortable) distance, as we sit in the dark.
With its unsentimental affaire du coeur, the uncharacteristic soft center to this otherwise hard-candied treat, Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse whetted Preminger’s warlike appetite as cinema’s undisputed provocateur. The novel and the movie explore a father/daughter relationship much too insular and self-destructive to last. And Preminger is combatively on point as he follows the novel’s trajectory down the rabbit hole almost page for page. The tale is one of an inquisitive gamin, Cécile (played with rather wooden aplomb by Jean Seberg), who thinks nothing of interfering in her father, Raymond latest love affair(s). This, rather predictably, leads to unexpectedly disastrous consequences.
Raymond (David Niven at his self-deprecating best as the epicurean boulevardier) is a most elegant middle-aged roué; deviant, but unscrupulously charming. Raymond isn’t deliberate about taking advantage of the opposite sex – or rather is, yet obtuse to even the possibility that anyone could care more for him. And yet it is precisely his uncomplicated approach to romance and fatherhood, allowing his child to do as she pleases, that condemns Cécile to her most unhappy misfortune. For Preminger is acutely aware of the sexist double-standard at play, even if Cécile is not. A man who plays the field is a stud. But a woman aspiring to compete in this arena is judged a trollop.
Cécile is, as Raymond frequently suggests – “his girl”. In fact, she’s never been anything else. Despite her burgeoning sexuality, presumably, as yet untapped by the ill-fated suitors she picks up as figures of fun (just something to go with her latest pair of earrings and cocktail dress), Cécile is caught in a vicious cycle destined to doom her to some strange and perennially haunted loneliness. In any other traditional movie heroine this condition would have registered as a crisis of conscience; except that Cécile knows not its definition, nor its boundaries, nor even the possibility she might be transgressing against the natural order of all womanhood by choosing to manage her stylish father’s peccadillos at the expense of procuring any lasting playmate of her own.
In the past, Cécile has come to know a goodly number of her father’s mistresses. His latest, Elsa Mackenburg (Mylène Demongeot) has joined them on the French Riviera, ravishingly photographed by cinematographer, Georges Périnal as a glistening paradise into which we all might aspire to periodically escape. But Elsa has committed a cardinal sin in their love affair. She has actually fallen in love with Raymond and cannot foresee the end, despite it already being very close at hand. Cécile and Elsa are alike in age, and there is an undeniable kinship between these two ‘girls’. Ironically, no jealousy exists between them for Raymond’s affections, perhaps because Cécile knows Elsa will not last the summer. Nevertheless, they are friends.
Cécile is just as naïve about her own future. When asked by her latest fling, Philippe (Geoffrey Horne) about her plans, Cécile casually replies, to merely soak up the sun and find new diversions that will amuse. She’s already failed her first year of college and isn’t terribly upset by it. For that matter, neither is Raymond. Life, after all, is a greater teacher than a hundred books, or, as Raymond suggests, quoting Oscar Wilde again, “Sin is the only note of vivid color that persists in the modern world,” to which Cécile playfully replies, “I believe I could base my life on it.” No kidding – she most certainly could!
The reality, of course, is that any life erected on such a rickety platform is ultimately fated to failure – something Cécile either naïvely cannot fathom or is unwilling to accept. Consider that she is attracted to men her father’s age – an ever-evolving cavalcade of dapper dons secure in their own sexual prowess, though fairly unsure how to proceed beyond first base with this decidedly coy and very fresh-faced child in a woman’s body. Cécile generally loses interest in her ‘men’ just as things begin to heat up. Her love life is therefore a flop; her boredom with love in general arresting her development. However, things change after Cécile meets Philippe (Cyril, in the novel, and with whom she does consummate an affair). Philippe is studying law. He’s serious about his career and Cécile. This, of course, turns off the devil-may-care waif, or rather, alerts her to another reality she otherwise would rather not face.
For a while this foursome (Raymond and Elsa, Cécile and Philippe) spend an uneventful summer at the villa, lazing around the palatial grounds by day and venturing into the nearby town to indulge their senses with wine and music by night. It’s a perfect way to live – or so, Cécile believes; that is, until one of Raymond’s former flings, designer Anne Larsen (Deborah Kerr) arrives for a respite by way of an earlier invitation. Anne is accomplished in every way the modern woman ought to be. Furthermore, she’s every bit Raymond’s equal, something Elsa is obviously not. Anne appeals to Raymond on a more cerebral level, though there is obvious sexual chemistry between them. Moreover, Anne, a close friend of Cécile’s late mother, is principled and wise; qualities she will attempt to infuse into all their lives with ruinous results. Cécile really doesn’t mind Anne’s meddling – at least, not at first – because she can sense how good Anne could be for her father. Not long after Anne’s arrival, however, Raymond rather unceremoniously dumps Elsa to cat around town with Anne.
As summer draws to a close, Raymond announces rather abruptly he has decided to marry Anne. Cécile has no objections, but very quickly begins to harbor a genuine resentment after Anne takes a proactive maternal interest in her future. Anne is disciplined. She won’t allow Cécile to throw away her life on feckless whims and men who desire her for only one thing. Suggesting Cécile set aside her summer romance with Philippe to hunker down on her philosophy books so she can retake and pass her exams, Anne incurs Cecile’s ire precisely because Raymond sides with her. It’s always been Raymond and Cécile/ Cécile and Raymond; the two of one mindset and ambition, however lackadaisical. Changing the chemistry in their ensconced father/daughter relationship does not sit well with Cécile who, almost immediately, begins her devious plotting against their future happiness together.
Cécile arranges for Elsa and Philippe to pretend they are a couple, hoping to spark Raymond into a jealous fervor. But this doesn’t happen. In the novel, Raymond eventually goes into town in search of Elsa. But in the movie he wilfully indulges in a few off-screen passionate kisses while Anne overhears Raymond rather cruelly tell Elsa no one needs to know. The implication is that Raymond will continue to see Elsa even after he has married Anne. It’s intolerable. Anne, who has been as steady as the rock of Gibraltar, now crumbles under the realization she has made a terrible mistake. She hurries up the embankment to her parked car, driving off in a frenzied huff with Raymond and Cécile in hot pursuit.
But only a few hundred yards up the winding seaside road Raymond and Cécile come across onlookers peering over the edge of a cliff where Anne’s car has gone off; either by accident or from an apparent suicide. Either way, Raymond and Cécile are directly responsible for her demise. This realization never hits Raymond. He reverts to his old vacuous, aimlessly drifting. However, for Cécile the emotional consequences are only amplified with the passage of time. She is, after all, more conscious of the instigations taken toward ruining this woman’s life. Worse, she has severed the last link to her own mother; something Cécile only understands now that it is too late.
Bonjour Tristesse (1958) is a movie about monumental consequences – even to these inconsequential lives. Georges Périnal’s cinematography punctuates Cécile’s mounting dread, shifting from gloriously Technicolor for the summer flashback, into stark – though nevertheless, sumptuous - B&W for the pro and epilogues; also for several brief inserts interpolated throughout. These visually arresting sequences explain to the audience just how diatonic and uninspiring Cécile’s life has become since Anne’s passing. It’s a clever device, perfectly complimented by Jean Seberg’s pouty lips and expressionless visage, staring into space as she rests her head on the arm of another ephemeral paramour, the glacial tone in her voiceover narration at odds with the glint of sadness already begun to devastate her heart. Perhaps, Cécile is even surprised to discover she has one.
Bonjour Tristesse – loosely translated as ‘hello, sadness’ – is an undeniably handsome-looking movie; Otto Preminger and Georges Périnal conspiring to achieve an articulate, signature elegance in Cinemascope. Alas, the performances never rise to a complimentary level; particularly Seberg who, as the plumbic heroine, is about as apathetic as movie stars get. Indeed, after a screen test, Otto Preminger was advised to cast someone else in this pivotal part; the director instead going to the mat for his ‘star’, and, in his inimitably caustic manner - as usual, getting his way. The time-honored precept ‘be careful what you wish for’ seems fitting herein, Seberg later admitting the role was beyond her limited depth of understanding. Yet, it would be all too convenient to simply dismiss Seberg as the movie’s great failing. Despite her sometimes agonizingly evident recital of lines she doesn’t quite comprehend or know exactly how to hyphenate for maximum effect, Seberg nevertheless manages a minor coup; being able to hold her own within such distinguished company.
Even with all their built-in cache and star power, David Niven and Deborah Kerr are unable to eclipse Jean Seberg off the screen. Seberg is, after all, through mere powers of observation, an incontestably pulchritudinous woman; hair smartly cropped, resplendently sheathed in a striking black cocktail dress. She effortlessly sashays across the dance floor and moves throughout our story with a moody magnificence, impeded only when she opens her mouth to utter dialogue; a reminder of the white swan’s dichotomous beauty; graceful in the water, but clumsily waddling just like any other duck on dry land.
David Niven’s is the best performance in Bonjour Tristesse; a genetically genial chap immensely enjoying his tenure as the suave roué. He isn’t simply having a good time. He’s giving a great performance; Niven’s zest for life emanating from the screen. We love him because of this intangible quality. It makes Raymond not only easygoing on the eyes, but immediately agreeable to our moralistic sensibilities. We like him almost immediately, even if we cannot abide the way he conducts his affairs and/or treats his women. As an actor, Niven can say so much with just a sly grin or casual wink; his entire demeanor infectious and rhythmic. He just fits the bill or rather, sells it as truth – the one deliciously plausible performance in the film.
Deborah Kerr isn’t quite as good as Anne; too much of the proverbial ‘school marm’ in her clipped delivery to make anyone believe she and Raymond could ever be ‘an item’. After all, where is the allure for him – this lady-killer accustomed to sultry, dulcet and intoxicating playthings, worn on his fashionably tuxedoed arm or simply toyed with in the bedroom? Anne is a woman of culture, perhaps on par with Raymond’s own aesthetic tastes. But she’s arguably too much woman for him; not nearly as disposable as Elsa or the many others who have come and gone before her. And Kerr is wholly unconvincing in the last act as her accomplished alter ego precipitously curdles into a puddle of mushy goo after having discovered Raymond with Elsa. She’s overwrought rather than overcome by this disappointment.
Because Bonjour Tristesse is so telescopically focused on this triumvirate, the dramatic strength and/or weakness of the picture is connected to how successful each character remains at functioning within this curiously antiseptic, rather than vaguely incestuous, ménage a trois. Alas, in the final analysis, Bonjour Tristesse is teeming in self-delusion and egomania; a debilitating state of mind where each character sincerely believes they can remain young and beautiful forever barring the fact none is as young or as beautiful right now.
Nothing but great things to say about Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release: another stellar example from this boutique’s alliance with Sony Home Entertainment. Here is a 1080p presentation that will blow you away; a ravishing, reference-quality visual feast for your home theater. The hi-def image exhibits remarkable clarity. The B&W sequences are gorgeously gradated; the Technicolor - positively radiant. The sumptuous vistas of the French Riviera are awash in vibrant royal blues, exquisitely lush greens, and an enveloping, ambient afterglow of noonday sunshine: positively intoxicating. Wow! Flesh tones, contrast levels and film grain have all been accurately realized. Bravo and many thanks to Grover Crisp and his entourage for this exemplar of Blu-ray’s majestic capabilities.
Bonjour Tristesse gets a lossless DTS-HD mono rendering. After all the superlatives I’ve lavished on the video, the mono audio is decidedly something of a letdown. But this is a dialogue-driven story, so perhaps 5.1 would have been overkill. There are noticeable aural differences between the actual dialogue in the film and Seberg's voiceover narration. For those madly in love with Georges Auric’s fantastic score, Twilight Time offers yet another DTS-HD isolated track, the mix heartier and decidedly more satisfying than it sounds mixed into the actual movie. The only other extra is a domestic trailer, containing a truncated ‘interview’ with the novel’s authoress, Françoise Sagan. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)