You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
This week Brad Mariano looks at Otto Preminger’s 1958 film Bonjour Tristesse.
Modern viewers of Otto Preminger’s 1958 film Bonjour Tristesse will likely approach it from a far different perspective than its original audiences would have. For one, Bonjour Tristesse was an adaptation from a book fresh in everyone’s mind – a worldwide smash by teenage author Francois Sagan, but not one that is particularly well-known now; so it’s a film that now exists very separately from the literary and cultural context of its original reception. So too does the reputation of the underrated Otto Preminger, whose celebrity at the time eclipsed that of many of the stars in his movies, and who was an early example of the superstar director. So how to talk about Bonjour Tristesse, a criminally underseen and misunderstood classic? It’s a film I love for many reasons. On the surface it’s a very simple story that doesn’t need much in the way of a primer. Rich kid Cécile (Jean Seberg) recounts her previous summer holidaying by the sea with father Raymond (an incredibly well-cast David Niven, in a mixture of self-parody, awareness and introspection from his well-known screen image and publicised private life), a playboy whose lifestyle (and that of Cécile’s) is threatened by a budding romance with a friend of Cécile’s late mother, the elegant but level-headed Anne (Deborah Kerr).
My own attraction is understandable – I’m a sucker for those glossy 1950s Technicolor subtext-as-text films, and for me it straddles so nicely that underrated period of American filmmaking, the creative apexes of Sirk, Tashlin, Ray and those maverick auteurs who created subversive and potent films under garish and gorgeous artificial exteriors, and the slick French New Wave films that would start in the late 1950s and proceed through the 60s. In hindsight and understanding its context in the history of cinema, the different narrative levels of the film – Cécile’s narrations in the black-and-white ‘present day’ of Paris’ chic bars and streets, and the nostalgic, coloured reflections on the past clearly replicate visually two very distinct modes of filmmaking, like the missing link between Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession and Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us, while coming together as a very cohesive and moving whole.1 Perhaps the film is most known to casual cinephiles due to Godard’s famous response to it. So moved by the film’s final shot, he said (mostly facetiously) that he wanted to start Breathless with that shot, before proceeding with a “3 Years Later” framework. Though it’s hardly canon – as hard as it is to convince yourself, her character and that of Niven’s are French, not American like her character in Breathless – it speaks to the enormous influence this film had over the New Wavers; its visual influence over Godard’s Contempt in particular cannot be overstated. It’s just a shame that this film tends to be a footnote in that story rather than celebrated as its own achievement.
It’s an incredibly rich film, and there are huge elements that I won’t talk about. Before writing and just speaking casually about the film with 4:3 editor Conor it was clear that we both found the character psychologies very intriguing and powerful (though crucially, we didn’t agree entirely) and I can’t really do justice to the intricacies of Cécile’s relationship with her father here, but it’s immediately thrown at you when watching the film. An early scene where Raymond asks the dressing Cécile’s if there’s any “zipping or buttoning to do,” or Cécile reminding you of that precocious friend we all had in primary school who unnerved us by constantly referring to their parents by their first names. There is so much to unpack in terms of Cécile’s development through her relationship with Raymond, but I do want to talk about other things in the film.
It’s a film that benefited from a rewatch in preparation for this piece on two levels. Firstly, there’s so many simple pleasures that don’t require much discussion. On a surface level, it’s a very fun film, of tremendous performances – Seberg absolutely lights up the screen, and it’s easy to see how Godard and Truffaut fell in love with her so easily – and absolutely gorgeous visuals. But the artistry of the film is something altogether more impressive. Preminger understood the widescreen CinemaScope aspect ratio better than anyone, which marks his films of the period with their stunning compositions.2 Whether tracing the lateral movement of the titular River of No Return with Marilyn Monroe or tracing the English streets with his roving crane shots in the underrated conspiracy thriller Bunny Lake Is Missing, Preminger’s mise-en-scène is so precise that it becomes a joy in itself in this film just to watch Preminger’s camera float in and out around the chateau, along cliff faces and out infinitely to the Mediterranean Sea.
An essay could focus on the spatial relationships and movements of characters in and out of the frame alone (the visual marginalisation of the servants, crucial to Raymond and Cécile’s lifestyle, is a very subtle touch), with a level of detail that rewards close viewing. Eagle-eyed viewers will catch Philippe as a tiny figure on the rocks in the bottom corner of one frame, several minutes before his proper introduction. But spatial relationships within the wide frame is consistently an important part of this film, and Preminger heightens dramatic tensions and character interactions by specific placement in the frame – particularly Niven, rarely shot by himself, almost always within arms length of another character, usually Seberg in the first half, and Anne in the second; the change in her relationship with her father than Cécile perceives and the connection with Anne that she feels threatened reverberates visually, with the middle of the frame often a dividing line. Compare the two screenshots in the body of this essay (one of the many visual symmetries and recurring images that Preminger uses and subverts) as example – the first is in the first half hour of the film, the latter after an argument with Anne where she feel betrayed by her father.
Another fantastic example of his compositions is that outside of the present day Paris sections, there are only two close-ups in the film (Preminger usually prefers and says more with mid-range shots) – a jarring cut when Anne (Deborah Kerr) first hears that Elsa is staying with Raymond and Cécile, and again at the film’s devastating climax, again involving Elsa. Aside from a nice symmetry, this visual connection establishes a narrative and emotional backstory between two characters who aren’t otherwise afforded much agency or depth in Cécile’s biased narration.
This last point ventures into one of the most interesting things about the film. The source novel, like the narration, is told in the first person, a framing of narrative that is difficult to transcribe onto screen. One of the truly brilliant things for me in Bonjour Tristesse is the remarkable way the adaptation turns this story into a narrative film, which due to the objective presence of the camera as spectator generally mandates a third person perspective, while keeping this clearly a subjective film where Cécile’s teenage solipsism dictates the films content and we see all the other characters and proceedings through her eyes (or even less reliably, through her memory). Connected with this is how perfect the genre of melodrama is to this – the genre associated with exaggerated passions and personal drama and petty bullshit – and the film’s heightened emotions and feelings and colours reflect that this is the story from the perspective of a hormonal teenager. It’s a film that oozes sexual tension and barely suppressed angst, and the lack of perspective into characters other than Cécile allows us to see this unfold from her point of view.
Seberg appears in just about every frame of the film, and there’s a way of distancing supporting characters (often visually, backgrounded while Cécile is in the foreground or closer to the camera) that, combined with her narration, lets us go along subconsciously with some of her absurd ideas – our initial warmth to Raymond, and most alarmingly, the way we approach Anne. A distant and often unreadable character, we align with Cécile until it’s too late, when Anne’s ‘comeuppance’ which we’ve subconsciously come to anticipate reveals how duped we’ve been by teenage bullshit. In hindsight, of course Cécile should have been studying more (but the allure of those gorgeous coastlines and sea means that we also don’t want her to have to stay inside) and we realise that the film has subtly drawn us into her myopic worldview.
On a repeat viewing, one recurring element that I loved is the marginalisation of the character of Philippe, Cécile’s ostensible love interest. In any other teenage holiday film, the meeting, flirtation and chemistry with this character would have been a primary focus. But in this film, after we meet him initially, several scenes later we cut to Cécile and Philippe right in the middle of a passionate embrace having completely cut out the build-up to that.3 It’s jarring, probably unprecedented in coming-of-age films and in Cécile’s psychology we realise why this relationship is cleverly elided as an irrelevant subplot, as Cécile is much more consumed with her father’s love life then her own. She remarks once that he’s simply too young to be a suitable match for her, which considering he is 26 and she roughly 17 is a small and absurd insight into just how warped her father’s affairs have made her own view on relationships.
The sheer self-absorption of Cécile and Raymond reverberates through the film’s script and visuals. The running gag of the three servants (sisters Claudine, Albertine and Laudine) replacing one another due to various maladies reflects this as well, not just because Cécile and Raymond rarely notice that they have switched, but because they don’t show any concern or empathy about these mysterious illnesses, and treat it as simply another game or joke in their life of leisure. In the abstract it works so well, coming together as this satire on the bourgeois leisure class who have too much money and free time to have any worth, who spend their summers among beautiful people and locations drinking, gambling and fucking, almost believing their own self-awareness redeems them. Upon ruining his impending marriage by his infidelity, Raymond philosophically mutters that “it was bound to happen sooner or later… at least I’m aware of it.” The unhealthy, macroscopic relations of Cécile and Raymond are alarming, but no less than the insights into their general milieu. So why do you have to see this film? If you ignore everything above and simply indulge me in some absolutes, its one of the best films of the 1950s, one of the most beautiful films ever made and the masterpiece from one of the best directors to work in the Hollywood system. It’s a film I could watch endlessly for its sheer beauty and fun and to mine its considerable depths.
Jess Ellicott: Well, this was an absolute pleasure to watch. As Brad said, Preminger puts CinemaScope to optimum use here, with every shot maximising on the beauty of the locations as well as the positioning of the actors to optimum visual and symbolic effect. The casting decisions are all strokes of brilliance, especially in the choice of Deborah Kerr as Anne – whose renowned typecasting as a goody-goody is riffed on here, for example in the playful reference to Black Narcissus with Raymond at one point saying to Cécile “Anne’s not asking us to go into a convent.” French actress Mylène Demongeot is also particularly luminous as Elsa Mackenbourg, who is a constant source of amusement throughout, and whose ridiculously ostentatious hats are matched only in ridiculousness by her heavily-accented delivery of lines like “Oh, my pathetic feet!” and “Oh, I look like a piece of old wallpaper!”
Frivolity aside, what struck me the most about Bonjour Tristesse was the clear thematic companion piece it provides to Angel Face, Preminger’s devilishly dark noir from a few years prior. Freudian themes permeate many of Preminger’s films, including Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends, and both Angel Face and Bonjour Tristesse are textbook cases. Both clearly involve an Electra complex, the female counterpart to the Oedipus complex, where the daughter’s psychosexual jealousy drives her to compete with the mother for the affections of her father. All of Cécile’s seemingly bizarre actions can be explained by such a complex, driving her hatred towards Anne, who as a potential spouse and mother replacement poses much more of a threat to her father’s affections than the previous string of frivolous flings did. (As was the case with Diane’s stepmother in Angel Face.) Both films use the power of fiction in exploring what would happen if we acted upon our deepest, darkest desires (however far-fetched and outdated the psychology may be). Without giving too much away, the films also share very similar endings. I can imagine how an in-depth comparison would generate some compelling insights.
In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the film – but I’m still not sure anything could beat Laura in terms of Preminger’s oeuvre.
Conor Bateman: My only knowledge of Preminger was Laura, which I remember liking a whole lot, so when Bonjour Tristesse started up with that stunning pan across Paris I figured I was in for another beautifully shot black-and-white story of love and jealousy but perhaps one less steeped in mystery and wonderfully vague psychosexual politics – I don’t believe it though I am very partial to the theory that the second half of Laura is a dream, almost an inverse of Mulholland Dr. – but I was dead wrong, Bonjour so filled with subtext that it becomes the main narrative attraction, the seemingly simple inverse Parent Trap plot a vehicle for engaging thematic exploration and cultural critique. Brad mentions we spoke about this film earlier and the context of our discussion was mostly centred around the psyche of Cécile; as soon as she stares into the camera early in the film and her internal monologue kicks into gear we become aware of the cynical approach to love the film will take – from, as Brad mentions, the bold and amusing objectification of Cécile’s lover, Philippe, to the way in which the incestuous overtones of the relationship between Seberg and Niven’s characters give way to a more interesting reading of nature and nurture – the notion of emotional dependency stands out as a slyly complex narrative thread. Another of the things we talked about, and which Brad doesn’t seem to have touched on here, is the psychosexual underpinning of Anne, Deborah Kerr’s character. It’s so easy to paint Anne as either a force of good or evil – planting herself in Cécile’s life and attempting to sway her from the course of merely seeking a husband as the determined future – yet the notion of replacing one of her closest friends, as wife to Raymond and mother to Cécile, is actually quite a powerful element of characterisation. Anne seemingly fulfils a long-held lustful fantasy (perhaps that’s overstating it) yet has to grapple with the notion that she exists as a replacement, of sorts – the scene where she tells Cécile that she and Raymond are to wed is a brilliant incarnation of this central unease.
For the second week in a row we look at a film that uses a shift from black and white to colour for more than just aesthetic value, Godard using it as an experiment and a bold statement, Preminger here shifting as a result of tone. It’s not a particularly subtle element of the film and he keeps any actual transition from colour to black and white (in linear time) off-screen, though it does craft a palpable sense of the unknown, when we return to Cécile in the bar and she stares into the mirror it’s a major shift from the almost annoyingly chipper child we see in Technicolor. On that point, Bonjour Tristesse is one of the best blu-ray transfers I have seen hands down, its sumptuous cinematography meticulously captured by the Twilight Time release. I can’t really speak any more highly of how stunning this film is, perhaps some of the black and white cinematography indoors lacks the bravura of the opening shot, but all of the work on the Mediterranean has a vibrancy rarely seen on film; you can feel the heat of the sun – their household distinctly calling to mind the image I have in my head of Dickie Greenleaf’s vista in The Talented Mr. Ripley in Highsmith’s original text – it’s no mere set, or for that matter setting, it feels fully lived in and realised, an escape from normalcy presented and then slowly chipped away at.
Brad talks about the perspective and narration in this piece and now I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of the book and see the story more clearly within the mind of Cécile. That, then, is part of the charm of Bonjour Tristesse, its surface is simple but it lingers in the mind. A very worthwhile watch.
Ivan Cerecina: Thanks to Brad for making me (us) watch this, a great film. I’m not 100% sold on Preminger – I seem to be in the minority that doesn’t like Anatomy of a Murder or River of No Return – but this is up there with the best of his work I’ve seen (Angel Face, Laura as noted by the others). Brad’s comparison of the film with Sirk’s melodramas of the period is apt, though what sets it apart from those films is the subjective narrative structure that Conor pointed out. Here, the bratty Cécile and her technicolor reveries of the summer past are the basis for our troublesome position as moral judges of the characters’ actions, caught between identification and revulsion. Its influence on the generation of French directors that so admired Preminger, evoked by Brad in his response, is evident; not just in early Godard, but also in Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach and perhaps in the moral quandaries of Varda’s Happiness. It bears repeating just how wonderful the colour in this film is,4 and it was perhaps telling that I slightly dreaded the return of the black and white scenes in Paris after our Technicolor sojourns in the Mediterranean. Seberg’s internal monologues do feel a little redundant at times, but that’s only because her face is able to communicate tristesse so well without words. But these are minor quibbles. This is as fine a bougie satire as you’ll see from this period of movies in Hollywood.