Feature Film: Bonjour Tristesse

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Controversial, influential and far too ahead of its time, the 1958 classic returns to the big screen at the BFI.

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Re-released in a fantastic new colour scope courtesy of Sony Columbia, and in the year its director, Otto Preminger, was the subject of a retrospective at the Locarno film festival, Bonjour Tristesse is enjoying an extended run at the BFI Southbank. It is ripe for a re-evaluation which acknowledges its outright excellence as well as its influence on later New Wave masterpieces.

Originally released in 1958, Bonjour Tristesse is based closely on the 1954 novel written with astonishing precocity by Francoise Sagan. Via retrospective flashbacks it tells the story of a summer holiday in the French Riviera taken by the 17-year-old girl Cecile (Jean Seberg), and her playboy father Raymond (David Niven). Two women who form a love triangle with Raymond join them: his mistress Ilsa (Mylene Demongeot) and family friend Anne, played with aplomb by Deborah Kerr. The younger, frivolous Ilsa is usurped by the older, more accomplished Anne, who Raymond decides to marry on a whim. Where Ilsa had been “a playmate” to Cecile, Anne is an increasingly strict “governess”. Cecile schemes an intervention to protect her selfish carefree lifestyle, with tragic consequences.

The film’s excellence lies in the two things that likely caused poor initial reviews: its laconic subtlety and uncompromising modernity – it was too far ahead of its time for American and British critics. Instead, the film became immensely popular with a French film culture at the dawn of New Wave, finding appreciation for its listless atmosphere and innovative camera style.

The subtlety is occasionally a shortcoming. Scenes between Seberg and Kerr are too few and too short, and do not wholly convince as the fulcrum of the kind of rivalry that leads to the film’s tragic finale. Seberg’s performance, however, deserves the praise it has received. Francois Truffaut’s remark that when Seberg “is on screen you can’t look at anything else” encapsulates both her performance in this film and its influence on later New Wave.

Her scenes with Niven have just enough flirtation and absence of father-daughter norms to hint at the Oedipal. They delight in their energy, silliness and humour, but as the plot builds the darker consequences of their carefree existence become apparent. As one might expect when playing a charming, wealthy roué, Niven excels. It is impossible to be plus anglais que les Anglais when the Anglais in question is David Niven. Raymond is a middle aged man who acts “like a boy”, and the loss of innocence alluded to in the title is as much his as his daughter’s.

Throughout, Preminger’s roving camera puts in as subtle and effective a performance as his cast. The switches from vivid colour Riviera to austere black and white Paris are stark in their ability to evoke the painful “wall of memory” surrounding Cecile. The preference for group shots over close-ups, save for the arresting final scene, drives home the point that self-centred actions always have an impact wider than oneself.

Initially, Raymond and Cecile bring to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s verdict on another pair of amoral pleasure seekers (the Great Gatsby’s Buchanans): “They were careless people, they smashed up things and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together”.

But as Cecile stares into her mirror in the final, agonising moments of Bonjour Tristesse, you are grimly assured that for her and Raymond, there will be no retreat from the memories of the summer they cannot even bare to mention.

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