Bonjour tristesse: Preminger, Seberg, and Sagan

December 16, 2012 | By

Dude: she's your d-a-u-g-h-t-e-r. Stop it!

During his lengthy career, Otto Preminger directed close to 40 films, and as Julie Kirgo writes in the liner notes to Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray edition of Bonjour tristesse [M] (1958), Preminger was, alongside Alfred Hitchcock, one of the most recognized directors during the fifties and sixties. Hitchcock may have been more prolific and penetrated cinema and TV audiences (not to mention mystery story collections spun off from his TV series), but Preminger was the bold one, known for tackling hot-button issues in glossy, dramatic fashion.

Like Hitchcock, Preminger worked to cultivate an image of what a director was supposed to be in the public’s mind, and the bald Austrian known for a fiery temper was ideally suited to represent the auteur long before the Cahiers du cinema coined the phrase. The tough part with Preminger is unlike Hitchcock there are few visual signals that indicate You’re Watching an Otto Preminger Film, and yet because of his theatre background in Austria, it makes sense that Preminger would gravitate to filming plays, if not films that have a play-like structure, and just a handful of characters.

Perhaps his style was the ability to match cinematic techniques to a scene’s needs, which means that while Hitchcock would tailor scripts to a formula and design scenes for specific montages that fetishized  his preference for eyes, gun, feet, knife, twisting legs, convulsing hand, etc., Preminger would apply only what was deemed appropriate; the lack of a signature or idiosyncratic style is perhaps one reason his films linger in the minds of viewers – Laura (1944), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), The Moon is Blue (19953), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), and Exodus (1960) are all acknowledged genre classics – but the man himself is lesser-known.

He played Mr. Freeze on TV’s Batman (1966), portrayed the Nazi commandant in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), but as to what constitutes a Preminger film, well, that’s a bit more fuzzy. To an extent Preminger was his era’s Oliver Stone – a director known for picking controversial subjects, and whose name meant audiences were in for some kind of provocative tale – but he was less concerned with extending and transforming the mechanics of filmmaking.

Each film didn’t push the director to explore more abstract forms of editing or mixing up film formats (although  Bonjour does glide between black & white and colour) but strangely, like Stone, Preminger lost his relevance when his film subjects and filmmaking skills no longer interested and matched the needs of a new generation of filmgoers. After his WWII epic In Harm’s Way (1965), made when the decade was over-saturated with all-star, big budget war films, he started to fumble – not because the films were terrible, but because their content just wasn’t as interesting.

Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) is arguably his last great work – a psychological puzzle film that’s more successful in mood than its twist payoff – but what emerged from Preminger during the late sixties and seventies lacked the power and controversy of his fifties films. Part of the problem in assessing Preminger’s late career is how few of those films are currently available. Olive Films recently issued a trio of unavailable titles – race relations in Hurry Sundown (1967), acid tripping comedy in Skiddoo (1968), and social satire in Such Good Friends (1971) – but his final films – Rosebud (1975) and The Human Factor (1979) – remain unseen except in TV airings.

His fifties output is better-represented on home video, and almost every title is in fact available on DVD, with Twilight Time’s Bonjour being the first to make the leap to Blu-ray, and Laura slated for Blu via Fox February 5, 2013.

I won’t go into details about Bonjour here – the review covers all the nuances in retentive detail – but it’s definitely a film worth catching on the big screen (I kick myself for missing it at the TIFF Bell Lightbox), as Georges Perinal’s ‘scope cinematography and the southern France locations are stunning. It’s also a film that shows Preminger within his best realm – a small character study with visual and editorial touches that are neither flamboyant, indulgent, or arty, but tightly and rightly-suited for the scenes, the characters, and the subject matter.

Coming next: reviews of space-themed soundtracks.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor ( Main Site / Mobile Site )

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