Bonjour Tristesse (1958): Preminger’s Masterpiece, Starring David Niven and Jean Seberg

At the time of its release, Otto Preminger’s “Bonjour Tristesse,” adapted from Françoise Sagan’s best-selling French novella, divided film critics. Some reviewers though that the text was too slight and salacious, failing to acknowledge Preminger’s masterly touch, which in fact deepens and improves considerably on the source material.

 

Cultivating the image of a controversial, scandalist director, Preminger deals in this strangely appealing, shockingly frosty melodrama with all kinds of taboos, incestuous bond (here between a father and daughter), depression, contempt, and suicide, but in a more subtle and integrated way than on other Preminger movies.

The film depicts the tragic consequences of a triangle, composed of the wealthy playboy and middle-aged widower Raymond (David Niven), his naughty, curious, and ultimately dangerous teenage daughter Cecile (Jean Seberg), and Raymond’s refined, buttoned-up friend and lover Anne (Deborah Kerr).

Father and daughter lead a life of privilege without any emotionally commitments, other than devotion to entertain (or so it seems) one another and engage in fleeting romantic assignations.

This is the second film of Jean Seberg, one of Preminger’s “discoveries.”  A year later, she would become an international star, when Jean-Luc Godard cast her in his stunning feature debut “Breathless,” to play a similar character, a morally ambiguous enchantress.

The tale opens in black and white in present day Paris, then turns to color as the narrative covers the previous summer, which Raymond and Cecile spent vacationing on the Riviera.

Raymond spends his time with the dizzy but delightful Elsa (Mylene Demongeot), who’s the latest in a long line of transient relationships.  Daughter Cecile has failed her school exams, but it seems to faze neither her nor her father.  Running around the physically gorgeous setting seeking for pleasure, she encounters their neighbor Philippe (Geoffrey Horne), an attractive young man who studies law, and a tentative affair ensues.

Things change with the arrival of Anne, her father’s old flame, who makes Cecile insecure, feeling that her fun, comfortable lifestyle is threatened by the older woman. Anne criticizes Cecile’s carefree attitudes, urging her to study rather than play, and stop seeing the stud next door.  More disturbing and serious is her impact on Raymond’s carefree lifestyle.  As a result, she sets about scheming to split them up.

Preminger’s film is marked by dark mood and graver issues beneath the glossy surface, with thinly veiled references to incest. The flirtation with incest is tame by modern standards, but was considerably more outré in the 1950s.

 

What’s remarkable is the director’s moral ambiguity and neutrality, specifically his refusal to judge his characters, encouraging the audience to draw their own conclusions.  Preminger’s cool, detached camera shifts between a wintry black-and-white present, which begins and closes the narrative, and Technicolor flashbacks to summer on the Riviera.   As the film critic Andrew Sarris has astutely observed, “the stylistic expression of the eternal conflict is not between right and wrong, but between the right-wrong on one side and the right-wrong on the other, a representation of the right-wrong in all of us as our share of the human condition.”

The movie begins with Cecile’s first-person narration, depicting her summer of discontent with the glamorous life, while idealizing the recent past when she was content with the parties and irresponsibility.  Preminger uses the glossy nature of Hollywood melodramas in the 1950s as means of distancing the audience from plot details and immersing them in the subtext of the morality tale.

Preminger’s switch of color schemes is revealing.  At first Cecile’s memories, portrayed as monochromatic, come across as a gimmick, especially for a film with magnificent titles designed by maestro Saul Bass. Indeed, the use of black-and-white cinematography for the present and the lush color for the past indicate Cecile’s two disparate moods and also explain the picture’s title.

With its depiction of the vacuous lifestyle of the rich and famous, “Bonjour Tristesse” was ahead of it times, preparing the international audience for other major films about decadence and spiritual and moral decay of the idle upper middle class, such as Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and Antonioni’s “L’Avventura,” which followed in the early 1960s.

Defying categorization, Bonjour Tristesse is seemingly full of contradictions, it works as a sad melodrama and social satire, it’s a film that relies on and at the same time criticizes and satirizes the established screen images of Niven and Kehr, he as an elegant, immoral and amoral cad, and she as a prim and proper lady.

A word about the last scene:  Seberg’s Cecile, seen in close-up, applies night cream to her face, while talking to herself in voice-over: “I’m surrounded by memories. When he’s alone, does he remember? I hope not.”  The final image of Cecile’s face, expressing agony (but not remorse) is one of the most elegiac and tragic shots to conclude a movie, one that’s been ambivalent from the first shot.