[Film Review] Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Bonjour Tristesse poster

Title: Bonjour Tristesse
Year: 1958
Country: USA, UK
Language: English
Genre: Drama
Director: Otto Preminger
Writers: Arthur Laurents
based on the novel by Françoise Sagan
Music: Georges Auric
Cinematography: Georges Périnal
Jean Seberg
Deborah Kerr
David Niven
Mylène Demongeot
Geoffrey Horne
Juliette Gréco
Walter Chiari
Martita Hunt
Jean Hunt
Roland Culver
Rating: 7.2/10

Bonjour Tristesse 1958

Adapted from Françoise Sagan’s debut novel published in 1954 when she was merely eighteen-years-old, Otto Preminger’s BONJOUR TRISTESSE thrives on weaving its melodramatic tenor through the flippant precociousness of its protagonist, Cécile (Seberg), a 17-year-older gamine living with her affluent but roué father Raymond (Niven).

The film starts in Paris, in her all-out glamour and allure reflected through the monochromatic lens, Cécile and Raymond appear to be the perfect father-daughter pair, no generation gap, neither is too clingy to each other, they are likeminded and incredibly compatible, thoroughly luxuriate in their bourgeois dalliances as if nothing could ever faze them.

However, elicited by Juliette Gréco’s terribly sensuous and lugubrious rendition of the titular theme song BONJOUR TRISTESSE, written by Georges Auric, Cécile’s memory hacks back to one year earlier, in French Riviera, while the movie flashes back into its varicoloured richness, it is a guilt-ridden recollection, – seven, is my lucky number, murmurs Cécile, but exactly, what happened last summer?

Tragedy happens, certainly, bonjour tristesse literally means hello sadness, but before that, there were happy moments, Cécile was on vacation with Raymond and his young lady friend Elsa (Demongeot, a blonde bombshell in Marilyn Monroe-ish chicness) in his villa, soon they were joined by Anne (Kerr), an old friend of Raymond’s late wife, Cécile’s godmother, now a divorcée, whereas Cécile found herself a new beau, Philippe (Horne), an open-faced, handsomely-built young man living nearby.

The cast must have such a great time in making this film, sunbathing, swimming, waterskiing, dining, drinking, gambling and wiggling, everything sounds like a paid holiday. Then, bang, Raymond expresses his affections to Anne and proposes to marry her, and suddenly Elsa being kicked out of the picture. The match seems perfect, even in the eyes of Cécile, maternity endearment is something very healthy for her growth and nobody could be more suitable than Anne to assume that role. But soon, the spoiled side of her nature eggs her to defy Anne’s matronly discipline, and an apparently naive plan (with the help of Philippe, a fool in love, and the “brilliant” Elsa) to scuttle Raymond and Anne’s marriage will go haywire and the aftermath will make Cécile rue the day.

There is something inherently vapidly in Sagon’s story, but the movie retains magnificently a superficial but bewitching unpretentiousness of Raymond and Cécile, which makes them watchable, they are not intelligent people, Anne is evidently too good for them, but on the other hand, they are very much honest to themselves, the tragedy could have been avoided (there is no clarification it is an accident or a suicide, but the marriage would still hit a bumper road in a long run), in a way, Cécile’s scheme only help Anne to see through Raymond’s nature, so from a more cautionary aspect, the whole story seems to bear witness that we should never have the illusion that one’s unconditional love can change a person, either take it wholly or leave it immediately, there is no grey area here.

Preminger really loved Seberg, after the flop of SAINT JOAN (1957), Seberg’s screen debut, he didn’t give her up, here he cherry-picks her a tailor-made role and unreservedly puts her in the centre of the narrative, to flesh out her elfin mischief, singular delicacy, all in a continental style, prepares her for the star-making triumph in Godard’s BREATHLESS (1960).

The Niven-Kerr pair works side by side twice in a calendar year, compared with a more self-inflicted restraint in Delbert Mann’s ensemble piece SEPARATE TABLES (1958), Niven is much more nonchalant as a sybarite, to quote Raymond – is silly and vain, whereas Kerr hops up with a refreshingly relaxed air of being “the unattainable Anne” during her flashy entrance, only not soon would she backtrack to the stereotype of “Raymond, I cannot be casual” seriousness, or, in Cécile’s words, “the prim, prissy and prude”.

Calling BONJOUR TRISTESSE a high point of Preminger or any these leading stars’ coruscating careers is a far-fetched argument, however, its reputation and mojo as a level-headed cinematic raconteur endures the test of time, sleekly orchestrated by Preminger’s efficient artifice and Auric’s string-heavy score.

Oscar 1958  Bonjour Tristesse

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