A short review for the rerelease of the beautiful but deadly Bonjour Tristesse, for New Empress magazine.
Too much beauty, like too much champagne, will make you sick. And Otto Preminger’s sumptuous, intoxicating Bonjour Tristesse (1958) is as toxic as it is lustrous. Shot in CinemaScope, but veering between shimmering Technicolor on the Côte d’Azur and crisp monochrome for the Paris scenes, Preminger’s film recklessly seduces the eye even as the cruelty of its denouement turns the stomach.
This adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s scandalous French novel presents a romantic triangle of sorts: a three-way tug of love between a middle-aged Paris playboy (David Niven), his new flame (the wonderful Deborah Kerr) and his spoiled, wilful teenage daughter (Jean Seberg). Bombshell Mylène Demongeot steals a few scenes as Niven’s overthrown playmate Elsa, but this is Seberg’s show, and it’s her finest hour. Seberg’s Cécile is a pretty little demon, but ultimately, when the tristesse strikes, sympathetic. Niven’s Raymond is the true villain of the piece, after all. Cécile’s upbringing,by her “monster-cad” of a daddy has left her sexually precocious, callous, lazy and craving his full attention. As with Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011), it’s horribly fascinating to watch teenage morality corrupting adult relationships, as Cécile plots to wrest her father away from his new-found love.
Even the comic relief has a sharp edge: this rogues’ household are attended to by three doleful sisters, Albertine, Léontine and Claudine, each played by the same actress, who dodge their employer’s wandering hands,as glumly as they guzzle the dregs of the champagne.
You’ll recognise Cécile instantly – Seberg brought more than just her signature blond crop to her role as Patricia in Jean-Luc Godard’s totemic À bout de soufflé (1960). The director chose to reinterpret Cécile, all grown up, as a foil for crim-on-the-run Jean-Paul Belmondo: “I could have taken the last shot of Preminger’s film and started after dissolving to a title: ‘Three years later’.”
Where Godard’s movie offers New Wave shocks, Preminger’s film is a more classical affair, elegantly shaped by Seberg’s lump-in-throat voiceover. Stricken by regret on the dancefloor of a Paris nightclub, devastated by Juliette Gréco singing “Bonjour Tristesse”, Seberg is an icicle refusing to melt. Her past is Preminger’s queasy summer on the Riviera, and her future is as Godard’s “dégueulasse”.
Bonjour Tristesse is released on 30 August