Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)
Directed by: Otto Preminger.
Written by: Arthur Laurents based on the novel by Francoise Sagan.
Starring: Deborah Kerr (Anna Larson), David Niven (Raymond), Jean Seberg (Cecile), Mylene Demongeot (Elsa), Geoffrey Horne (Philippe), Juliette Greco (Self), Walter Chiari (Pablo), Martita Hunt (Philippe’s Mother).
Everything is a game in Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958), until of course, it isn’t fun anymore. The film is set in two different time periods – a year a part – with the present scenes shot in a glassy black-and-white, where father/daughter duo Raymond and Cecile (David Niven and Jean Seberg) are seen living an opulent lifestyle in Paris, but are lifeless, bored and miserable. The scenes from last summer are shot in glorious technicolor, on the French Rivera, where the two are at play, and having the hedonistic time of their lives. At some point, we know, we’ll discover what happened to make everything turn so dour.
Raymond and Cecile are the strangest of father/daughter pairings, in that both are essentially carefree libertines, and aren’t afraid to show each other that. Raymond is a cad, hopping from one casual affair to another – the latest being with Elsa (Mylene Demongeot), a much younger, vivacious woman who he has moved into their house – and if he supposedly in living in the boathouse, no one really questions it. Cecile is about 18, but appears younger – with her pixie cut, and girlie dresses, but she knows precisely what kind of effect she has on men, and how to weaponize it – Raymond knows as well, and doesn’t much care. They’re both having too much fun.
It is the arrival of Anna (Deborah Kerr) who changes all of that. She was apparently a friend of Cecile’s mother, and is a serious woman – incapable of being casual. Raymond knows this, but pursues her anyway, and soon the couple is engaged. Raymond believes that soon, he, along with Anna, can slowly drift into his old ways – Cecile knows better. And so, Cecile sets about finding a way to ensure that the marriage doesn’t happen – coming up with one plan after another, a devilish child skipping through the woods not knowing just what the consequences of her actions will be.
Preminger was a demanding director, and Jean Seberg was his discovery and protégé, and he was determined to make her a star – first in Saint Joan (1957) and then in this, the following year. The first film was considered an embarrassment, and the reviews for Seberg weren’t great here either – although it did win her some important fans in France – with Francois Truffaut calling her the best actress in Europe, and Jean-Luc Godard going so far as to cast her in Breathless (1960) – and even saying that she is essentially playing the same character in both films. Hers is the key performance in Bonjour Tristesse – and it’s a great one. She plays Cecile as a sociopath – but not an irredeemable one. Like many teenagers, Cecile is incapable of seeing the consequences of her actions until it too late – the games she plays have real consequences, but by the time she realizes it, it is too late. She just wants things to stay the same – and while she gets what she wants, she is miserable – leading to the mesmerizing final shot of the film.
Niven is terrific here as well. He is playing off his image as a cad here, but strangely, he is able to go deeper here, by showing us how blithely shallow Raymond is. He sees what is happening, not completely, but enough, but simply doesn’t care. This was the same year he would win an Oscar for Separate Tables, playing a gay character, who is given a bizarre sexual backstory because of course, you couldn’t say he was gay in 1958 – although that is precisely how Niven played him anyway. It shows some range that he gave the two performances in the same year, Deborah Kerr is fine as Anna – but like Niven, she is playing off her own image of being prim and proper, but unlike Niven, isn’t given the opportunity to really undermine that image at all.
Bonjour Tristesse also looks terrific – as was standard from a Preminger film. The cinematography by George Perinal is terrific – both in the sun drenched technicolor of the French Rivera, and the cold, glassy black and white of Paris. The film wasn’t seen as a success when it was released in 1958 – but is now becoming seen as the masterwork it is – and a key film in the career of the wonderful, tragic Seberg.

No comments:

Post a Comment