Bonjour Tristesse (1958)
Directed by Otto Preminger
Bonjour Tristesse was Otto Preminger's last relatively modest film before a 6-year leap into the world of prestige adaptations, a run that began with the poorly received Porgy And Bess before a series of films taken from monstrous 400-page-plus doorstops now long-out-of-print. This may look like a cynical producer's latching onto market trends, but the bloated qualities of these books was a boon: by sticking to the plot, more or less, Preminger could junk the dialogue and worldview at will and flesh out the remaining skeleton with superior material. (If you don't believe me, read Allen Drury's Advise And Consent.)
Seeing as (in its current Penguin issue) Françoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse runs a mere 113 pages, its adaptation necessitated a greater degree of fidelity. Arthur Laurents wasn't terribly impressed with the then-18-year-old's novella, but his script closely follows its contours. Preminger's tinkering begins with perverse casting: David Niven as Raymond, father of all-American Jean Seberg (as "Cécile"), who falls for his dead wife's friend Anne (British Deborah Kerr). Niven's the smooth roue blithely overseeing the uneasy dual between the two most important women in his life, whose different worldviews have less to do with France than a generation gap.
Sagan ominously hints at a bad conclusion at the end of every chapter: Preminger and screenwriter Arthur Laurents go further, opening in somber black-and-white flash-forward, with Cécile reciting her unsalvageable voice-over confirming her sadness ("I'm surrounded by a wall"). Seberg's performance is "wrong" in every way, but she doesn't look like any other Hollywood heroine of 1958. Even when clunky and unresponsive, it's easy to accept her non-performance as a manifestation of a totally different mindset from her much more experienced co-stars. She sounds like a girl group frontwoman recounting in deadpan how she and her high school love died in a car accident late one night. As she looks straight into the camera while dancing, Josephine Baker takes the stage to sing the title song. With typical cost-cutting expediency, Preminger cuts out all ambient sound and lets Seberg's musings alternate with Baker's equally from-nowhere song. The effect's oddly Lynchian: suddenly there's no real world, only a troubled interior world unnoticed by those onscreen, song and a woman's gaze casting a Club Silencio spell on the audience.
In the book, Anne worries over Cécile's emaciated state ("To look presentable you ought to put on six pounds; your cheeks are hollow and one can count every rib. Do go in and fetch yourself some bread and butter"). Both on page and onscreen, Cécile admires Anne's elegance and her ability to present a mature romantic challenge to the kind of frivolous young things her dad favors, but in the film the contrast between Seberg's instantly iconic pixie cut and 60s-readiness and Kerr's is much more clearcut: Cécile is young and instinctively charming, while Anne is middle-aged and clinging to authority thanks to her status as a well-known dressmaker and master of social etiquette.
This iconographic battle is far more convincing than the alleged dramatic focus. Preminger is a cinpehile god, and rightfully so, but I'm unconvinced that—of his many films that could receive week-long revivals—Bonjour Tristesse will evangelize the uninitiated. This is indeed visual storytelling, in the most obvious ways: Cécile is crowded to the edge of the frame once her beloved daddy takes over most of the screen with his fiancée and so on. The effects are purely visual (textbook "cinematic," in fact) but no more revelatory for that, and the dialogue can be hard to take.
Only one scene stands out as a purely successful, auteur-generated effort. Cécile, Anne and Raymond are out for the night with the latter's numbered-days mistress Elsa (Mylene Demongeot), who plunges into conga-line-esque dance. Having bugged the party into joining her in mindless dance, Preminger suddenly plunges his characters into a far larger social sea: Anne and Raymond reach a crucial new stage of commitment, but only in passing, one of many dancers passing a camera that alternately rests to observe the passing human flood and cranes up in restrained celebration of unexpectedly majestic spontaneous revelry. Our heroes pass by almost unnoticed, a magical broadening of claustrophobic drama that suddenly acknowledges an outside world.
Opens April 27 at Film Forum