It’s difficult to assess Otto Preminger’s 1958 Technicolor-CinemaScope production, Bonjour Tristesse. It may be even more difficult to appreciate it. Yet there it is, lingering in the mind’s eye of all who have seen it, as a lush, lively, and beguiling feature, an unusual film from its acclaimed, antagonistic director (a far cry from his moody noirs and austere dramas), and a perplexing work accentuated by a patchy yet enthralling performance from star Jean Seberg, in just her second film (after Saint Joan in 1957, also directed by Preminger). Bonjour Tristesse is part jet-set reverie, part teenage angst, and part melodramatic, melancholic remembrance. It’s everything at once, and nothing in its entirety. But from its Saul Bass opening titles, capped by an illustrated eye with a single teardrop, to its final, meditative denouement, it almost works against itself to coalesce into something wholly unique.
Produced and directed by Preminger, with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents, based on the 1954 novel by Françoise Sagan (which Preminger had originally planned to deliver as a play), Bonjour Tristesse begins in black and white present day, as capricious 17-year-old Cécile (Seberg) aimlessly drifts in what would soon be identified as Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) Paris. Snubbing her artist paramour and abandoning him on the day of his first exhibition, she bristles at his suggestion of marriage and is more content to a life of abandon, satiated by the perpetual desire to move on. Before long, the guilt-ridden catalyst for this detachment and resistance to commitment is manifest in luxurious color flashbacks to the summer prior, when Cécile and her equally impulsive father, Raymond (David Niven), are living an affluent life of leisure on the French Riviera. At first, they are joined only by flighty fun Elsa (Mylène Demongeot), Raymond’s latest lascivious fancy.
Eventually, though, throwing a wrench in the drama-free vacation, Anne enters the picture. Played by the always elegant Deborah Kerr, Anne is refined and kind, cultured but also a little too stay-at-home-and-settle-down; her decent deportment is appealing, but it also runs counter to Raymond’s playboy lifestyle. Perhaps even more upsetting, she is also maternal, that is, she is attentive and somewhat controlling, neither of which suits Cécile’s intemperance. To Cécile, who enjoyed the company of Anne when she was also pleased to lounge in the lap of luxury, the sudden drive toward stability is too much to bear. So, in typical teenage fashion, she lashes out, and in the course of her tantrum, arranges for a deceitful disruption, which is achieved to disastrous effect.
When submitted to the ratings board, the original summary of Sagan’s novel was rejected on the grounds of it being rife with “gross illicit sex without compensating moral values,” and by the fact that Raymond’s freewheeling love life was depicted as desirable. That, of course, is partly the point. From her father’s romantic entanglements, utterly cavalier and destined to hurt someone, to her own joyously dangerous amorality, Cécile’s story is something of a cautionary tale, one produced by the pleasure initially presented. This father-daughter pair is resigned to a mutual understanding, with no pretence about who they are and how they will live, for however long it can last. And in light of the film’s fatal final tragedy, it becomes clear why Cécile becomes so sardonic, for this haunting holiday has eternally altered her earthly outlook; she has gone from carelessly comfortable to profoundly numb. Though it doesn’t insist upon it, and is happily void of moralizing for most of its duration, Bonjour Tristesse is nonetheless a depiction of one young girl’s gruelling maturation process, an evolution she never saw coming. It’s likewise enlightening for the viewer, as what is perceived as Cécile’s preliminary cruelty is in fact a complex response to misfortune; her surface selfishness is a defence against the pain of others, a safeguard to protect what she sees as the result of her acknowledged callous potential.
Presumably like the offensive summary, a superficial abstract of the film’s fundamental plot-line does little to suggest what the picture conveys in its own subtle, circuitous way. Perhaps this is why Bonjour Tristesse was deemed more scandalous than it is, and perhaps it also had to do with Preminger’s treatment of the material, which certainly relishes in the lavish visualization of decadence and gaiety. His use of the widescreen frame is expressively conducive to character movement, of which there is an abundance, as all involved exude tremendous physical vitality. The choreography of characters within well-defined spaces also permits Preminger’s camera to soak in the scenic, chic ideal, centering around an opulent seaside villa (with certain interiors shot in London). He and cinematographer Georges Périnal craft a high-class staging of champagne fantasy, spontaneous dancing, heedless gambling (Elsa, in her broken English, likes “the craps”), and a generally pervasive sphere of offhand affluence. This picturesque rendering yields a litany of Bonjour Tristesse’s many curious juxtapositions: the clearly deliberate aesthetic of Preminger’s style enveloping a slack narrative structure, the stilted performances synthesizing with decorous imagery, and the conflicting character types against the pensive simplicity of a seasonal romance.
Among the stars in the film (not counting Juliette Gréco, who sings the title song in a café cameo), Niven and Demongeot deliver rather rudimentary performances—suitably enough all the same—one as the smiling, relentlessly charismatic womanizer, the other as a silly, sensual object of his and the film’s on-again, off-again affection. Kerr, by comparison, who was just 37 at the time, is inappropriately pared down to an aging, prudish killjoy. Her presentation is not only restrained by Anne’s dour demeanor, but is the result of an instant affinity for Cécile, by way of Seberg, who projects such derision. And make no mistake, if Bonjour Tristesse is anything, it is an unabashed Jean Seberg showcase, and that, again, raises another of the film’s awkwardly engrossing inconsistencies: the performance of this 19-year-old starlet. Seberg’s behavior is affected, her dialogue is mannered, and she succumbs to an occasionally painful giddiness. At the same time, though, she is absolutely captivating on screen, with a trendy pixie haircut, an extensive, attractive wardrobe, and an arresting, unadulterated presence. Her Cécile is superstitious and introspective (she is, fittingly enough, a philosophy student, albeit an uncommitted one); she muses in the mirror and later laments the memories she can’t elude, wondering in voiceover, “Will I ever be happy again?” Her fitful conduct merges apathy, impetuousness, grinning exuberance, and naïve irritabilities. She is privileged and passionate, scheming and sympathetic, and through it all, her escalating buoyancy is repeatedly undercut by a sense of inevitable collapse, which she concedes in retrospect, admitting that the “happy days were numbered.”
Upon the release of Bonjour Tristesse, it was Seberg, not surprisingly, who received most of the attention. Saint Joan had been a critical and commercial failure, but that did little to curtail Preminger’s obstinacy, or the devotion to his star discovery. While she received the brunt of his abusive handling, she was also guided by his commitment to her potential. Whether or not this was ever fully realized, the impression was enough to convince Jean-Luc Godard, who subsequently cast Seberg in what would be her most famous and iconic role, as Patricia in his 1959 feature debut, Breathless. Patricia was a character, according to Godard, who was in many ways a continuation of Cécile. “I could have taken the last shot of Preminger’s film and started after dissolving to a title: ‘Three years later,’” he said. There is indeed a similarly alluring aloofness, an emotional petulance and that same fascinating duplicity.
François Truffaut was equally taken by Seberg, and though they were never able to work together before her untimely death at age 40 (he had apparently wanted to cast her in his 1973 meta-movie Day for Night), he nevertheless penned the most effusive testament to her indelible magnetism, and to Bonjour Tristesse in particular. “When Jean Seberg is on screen,” he wrote in 1958, “which is all the time, you can’t look at anything else. Her every movement is graceful, each glance is precise. The shape of her head, her silhouette, her walk, everything is perfect; this kind of sex appeal hasn’t been seen on the screen…. In the blue shorts slit on the side, in pirate pantaloons, in a skirt, an evening gown, a bathing suit, a man’s shirt with the shirttails out, or tied in front over her stomach, or wearing a corsage and behaving herself (but not for long), Jean Seberg, short blond hair on a pharaoh’s skull, wide-open blue eyes with a glint of boyish malice, carries the entire weight of this film on her tiny shoulders. It is Otto Preminger’s love poem to her.”