BR: Bonjour tristesse (1958)

December 16, 2012 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / B

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Film: Excellent/ BR Transfer: Excellent/ BR Extras: Good

Label: Twilight Time/ Region: All  / Released: November 13, 2012

Genre: Drama

Synopsis: Jealous of of her father’s love for an old friend, Cecile plots an elaborate scheme to destroy his union with Anne, but with terrible consequences.

Special Features: Isolated mono music track / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment

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Review:

After going through the Hollywood studio system as a contract director during the 1940s, Otto Preminger re-established himself during the 1950s as one of the decade’s most important indie filmmakers. Preferring to make social statements within frank, if not lurid stories, Preminger’s work may not be as potent as Stanley Kramer’s own dramas about racism, anti-Semitism, and young adults struggling to find meaning and self-worth amid the rules of an older generation, but it’s perhaps more cinematic, because Preminger understood the value in enhancing his subject matter by exploiting the production elements readily available from the studios.

Preminger’s peak indie work remained glossy and commercial, pretty much eschewing any sense of realism in favour of entertaining audiences, and perhaps sneaking in a small message or two when the dramatic timing was right (although one can even argue his 1963 mega-epic, Exodus, was more about delivering Epic Moments than a message about religious tolerance. Substitute any other culture and the founding of a nation, and there’s little that needs to be altered to the story.)

That same glossy, cinematic approach to hot-button topics is readily evident in his film version of Francoise Sagan’s novel about being a wayward, spoiled brat in a world populated by pretentious wealthy adults who’ve warped her own worldview of not giving a damn about anything, except having fun in perpetuity.

Somewhat written off by critics during its original theatrical run, Preminger’s film espouses to present a deeply emotional saga about lost youth, but it seems to work more as a subversive critique of Francoise Sagan’s pretentious characters. Preminger and / or screenwriter Arthur Laurents (Anastasia, West Side Story) may well have recognized the preciousness of the novel, given the ennui of daughter Cecile (a radiant and ravishing Jean Seberg) is grating to the nth degree; regardless of how triste the little monster becomes in the finale, she has barely a glint of remorse for the tragedy she set in motion, making both herself and her playboy father Raymond (David Niven) fairly unsympathetic.

Not unlike Dangerous Liaisons, Bonjour is about arrogant, bored rich folks playing games with each other, and by restricting the focus on the upper class, the film becomes a somewhat modern take on the rich destroying each other, as though wealth and privilege not only breed petty contempt for one’s kind, but a certain amusement in plotting intricate embarrassment and chaos.

Bonjour is also a strangely vivid dramatization of the Electra complex where Cecile becomes vengeful when her mother’s old friend Anne (Deborah Kerr, quite excellent) begins a romance with her father. The morality is completely deranged in Bonjour: Cecile is comfortable with her father sleeping with women half his age because she knows Raymond will never offer them marriage. Floozies like Else (Mylene Demongeot) are too young and airheaded to assert themselves as a mother figure and demand Cecile change her behaviour the way Anne does, once she becomes engaged to Raymond.

Cecile only addresses and refers to her father by his first name not out of respect, but because she sees herself as a substitute lover, if not a best buddy, yet Preminger presents the couple in a very strange way once the flashbacks of Cecile’s summer vacation begin. When Cecile wakes up, Raymond scratches her head as though he’s giving a dog a welcoming head massage, and when Cecile returns from her swim she shakes her head like a dog, wetting Raymond as he performs some calisthenics. Right after her head-shake, she lies down opposite of her father, and the two raise and lower their legs with movements and body positions suggesting two lovers engaged in foreplay. Perhaps the punctuation to their relationship is their continued association after the tragic summer, because neither Cecile nor Raymond has any dear friends or respective lovers – only themselves, although in the city apartment shared with her father, Cecile now has a real dog; it’s the only creature she allows to see her naked as she slips from an evening dress into a nightgown, and the dog’s presence in her bedroom also makes it clear Cecile’s only friend can be the canine version of herself since it will remain as loyal and faithful as she is to her father.

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The problems with the film tend to lie with its unsympathetic characters, although once Anne arrives the drama is invigorated by her polar stance, and staunch objections to Cecile’s wayward behaviour, which includes snogging men in public as well as flunking school and junking any self-discipline for homework and designs for a career. Cecile in fact recognizes Anne’s worth – she compliments her directly – yet it isn’t within her nature to do the right thing. Even when her plan to destroy Raymond’s upcoming nuptials gains momentum and is about to destroy Anne’s self-worth, any hesitation to stop the plan is fleeting, and Cecile repeatedly shows more interest in seeing the effects of her manipulations.

Preminger’s segregation of colours by filming the dreary present in black & white and the past in striking colour is intriguing, but his stylistic decisions eschew any sense of realism, making it tough to have any sympathy for the characters. A prime example is the dance sequence where Cecile slow dances with some anonymous hunk while Juliette Greco (The Roots of Heaven [M]) croons the film’s titular song. The attempt is to create some sympathy for Cecile by introducing her as both the film’s narrator and central character, but the montage tends to evoke a little amusement because she’s presented as some quietly suffering angel, which doesn’t quite work (much like the song’s pretentious ‘woe-is-me’ lyrics).

What saves the scene is the strange aura that Georges Perinal’s camera conveys as Seberg’s blank face fills the screen, and her eyes stare blankly through the camera lens, straight at the audience. It’s a rather daring montage because it implies Cecile is dead inside, if not psychologically dented. Her blank attitude is also present in a nightclub scene where she dances like a pro but shows absolutely no emotion, even when two rival suitors fight for her attention.

The black & white ‘present’ serves as contrast for the emotionally high-pitched past, which Perinal captures with extraordinary colours and compositions. Regardless of the gorgeous costumes and innately pretty actors, it is Perinal’s cinematography that makes Bonjour one of the most remarkable colour widescreen films of the fifties, if not one of the most exquisite evocations of a mythically perfect southern France. The cars are all high performance, the houses are a mix of rustic and modern, the décor is warm and contemporary but never snooty, and the clothes reflect the best of fifties fashion without making their characters wholly arrogant. Even the wall hangings and mounted cloth prints are beautiful.

There’s also a sense Preminger recreated the picturesque world of the noir classic Leave Her to Heaven [M] (1945) by updating its forties Deco style to fifties moderne. Not unlike Heaven, there’s also a swimming sequence which brings out the jealousies and possessiveness of its central characters, but Perinal takes the compositional elements further by exploiting the 2.35:1 ratio with exquisite taste: even a simple scene of Cecile running down the rocky shield to the jet-styled diving board is a moment of art in motion.

Preminger also makes use of Rouben Mamoulian’s Logic of Colour theory throughout the film, placing blazing reds in shots to spice up scenes. A key sequence involves the dancing montage where the town seems to partake in snaking dance version of George Auric’s fluffy secondary theme: the band at screen centre is surrounded by characters in red attire, and other red-clad characters are more space out – essentially part of a whirlpool of people with red reference points that impart a sense of scale, movement, and a new stream of motion which in a subsequent cut, moves the action onto moored boats. It’s an indulgent scene that reinforces the stereotypical small French seaside town, but it’s beautifully choreographed.

The first of several films based on best-selling novels by Francoise Sagan, Bonjour is also part of a select group of idyllic portraits of southern France specifically about the spoiled rich, and the consequences resulting from bad social behaviour. Preminger’s film is a taut character study on the Electra complex and the perils of being self-absorbed in one’s wayward lifestyle and self-absorbed state of ennui, whereas Roger Vadim exploited the spoiled brat archetype and had Brigitte Bardot create chaos and social upheaval as she runs across the seaside locales of southern France in And God Created Woman (1956), also filmed in CinemaScope. About a decade later, Jacques Deray would set his own noir thriller, La piscine [M], in southern France, as another group of beautiful wealthy people engage in bad behaviour and deceit. Like Preminger’s film, Deray sets his drama in a gorgeous location with modern and classical architecture & décor and sleek performance vehicles, but Deray brings this micro-genre full circle by having his characters engage in the murderous, jealous acts launched in Heaven.

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Previously released on DVD by Sony, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is sourced from a gorgeous HD transfer with details so striking the flaws in focus and the CinemaScope lenses are more apparent (as well as the terrible rear-projection driving shots). The sound mix is also quite sharp, making it obvious many of the cottage scenes used location sound. (The reflection from the walls and tiles affect some dialogue, and in Seberg’s ‘yoga’ scene, camera noise is quite obvious.)

Saul Bass’ gorgeous main title design, replicated in the BR’s sleeve, represents the clever way Bass and Preminger would repeatedly use a film’s title art as a logo to create consistency among the film’s poster, trailer, and soundtrack album. Instead of relying on giant actor heads, Bass distilled the story into a singular graphic that’s beautiful and commercially functional.

Perinal’s cinematography alone is perhaps the best reason to snap up this disc, and one wishes Preminger’s Hollywood pacing would’ve slowed down just a little bit to let us relish the pristine world of Cecile and Raymond’s waterside cottage, with its splendid view, attractive yet rustic boathouse, and sublime fashion sense. What’s equally remarkable is how well the clothes (designed by Givenchy) have aged: the hats may be pompous and impractical, but the clothes’ print designs and beautiful pastel colours offer a perfect balance of simplicity and style.

Perhaps the most intriguing cast member is Seberg, whose film career began as the star of Preminger’s ill-fated Joan of Arc (1957). Bonjour was supposed to boost her career with a more contemporary role, but critics were reportedly unforgiving, causing her to find work in Europe where she soon enjoyed renewed success in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). Perhaps with some hindsight, some critics would have realized that with her short-clipped hair, small frame, and bountiful energy, Seberg was perfect as Cecile, and Preminger exploited the eerie emotional distance in her eyes in the black & white ‘present day’ scenes. Even if the actress was unsure of her skills, that nervousness suited a character who becomes confused once she loses her important place in the family’s hierarchy, and is downgraded to a mere teenager by pretend mother Anne.

It’s hard to say whether this is Preminger’s best film – he was primarily a director with a producer’s instincts for topical subjects – but he was blessed with an ideal talent pool in every area, and some will likely feel a compulsion to re-watch Bonjour, if not for the visuals within this underrated classic.

Extras on TT’s BR include an essay from film historian Julie Kirgo, Georges Auric’s score neatly isolated in fat mono between isolated sound effects, and a trailer where Sagan is ‘interviewed’ through ‘the magic of modern technology’ by a Columbia p.r. man. The questions are pure puffery, especially a preposterous claim Bonjour is some statement about ‘today’s youth.’

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For Preminger, Bonjour tristesse was followed by Porgy and Bess (1959) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), after which the director began is Epic Period, making lengthy films on sexual politics, nation founding, faith, WWII, and seething racism before a series of internationally produced duds wrapped up his career in the late seventies.

Seberg would appear next in the classic British comedy The Mouse That Roared (1959) before working almost exclusively in Europe. Her rare Hollywood films include the eerie Lilith (1964), Moment to Moment (1965), A Fine Madness (1966), the disastrous musical Paint Your Wagon (1969), and the iconic disaster film Airport (1970) featuring the biggest and ugliest hairstyle of her career.

Georges Perinal’s illustrious credits include The Four Feathers (1939), Dangerous Moonlight (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), The Fallen Idol (1948), No Highway in the Sky [M] (1951), Charlie Chaplin’s A King in New York (1957), and Preminger’s dour Saint Joan (1958).

Georges Auric would also score the 1961 film adaptation of Sagan’s Goodbye Again (1961), Jack Clayton’s creepy The Innocents (1961), and Radley Metzger’s underrated erotic drama Therese and Isabelle (1968).

Although many of Sagan’s works were translated to the big and small screens, Hollywood’s interest only extended to a handful of novels, including Bonjour tristesse (1958), A Certain Smile (1958), and Goodbye Again (1961). Bonjour tristesse was remade twice for television in France in 1965 and 1995.

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© 2012 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

IMDB Francoise Sagan WikiSoundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography

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