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Seeing as 2016 has exposed America as a country willfully abandoning its status as the selfappointed gatekeepers of global conscience, while hell-bent on leading the charge to the demise of decency and death of dignity; I wonder if the moral dilemma at the center of the Bonjour Tristesse would even appear as such to audiences today. In a world that takes its ethical cues from reality television, and where ego-driven consequentialism (the end justifies the means) has come to replace a humanist moral compass; choosing between a life of financially well-upholstered self-gratification versus the sharing an authentic, loving relationship with someone seems unlikely to pose much of a moral dilemma these days. A society that finds no value in compassion is going to eschew emotional authenticity in favor of the villa on the French Riviera.

Jean Seberg as Cecile


David Niven as Raymond

Deborah Kerr as Anne Larson

Mylene Demongeot as Elsa Mackenbourg

During the nascent days of what has come to be known as the Jet Set; a year after Playboy Magazine branded and commodified the image of the ladies’ man; and a good six years before Fellini exposed the world to La Dolce Vita; 18-year-old Françoise Sagan achieved acclaim and infamy when she wrote of “La Belle Vie” in her debut novel Bonjour Tristesse. Considered shocking at the time, Bonjour Tristesse is a wafer-thin tale of a precocious 17-year-old girl who admiringly but heedlessly adopts the sybaritic ways and philosophy of her widowed father—a shallow playboy—and the way her surface sophistication fails to prevent her from responding in the most childish way possible to the jealous threat imposed by the introduction of “a woman of substance” into their incestuously codependent twosome. Though I only just read Bonjour Tristesse prior to writing this essay, its frank talk of mistresses, womanizers, adolescent sex, drinking, smoking, and basic, old-school bohemian living-it-up still resonates with a narrative and psychological insight startling in a writer so young. I can only imagine what the American response to the novel was back in the days when the strongest stateside glimpses of 1950s teenage life were provided by the polar-opposite rebellion/conformity images of James Dean and Dobie Gillis. And that’s just the view from the boys’ room. The scope of behavioral possibilities for girls was even narrower. Teenage girls of the '50s who didn’t fit into the conventional "biding-my-time-until-compulsory-wife-andmotherhood" of My Little Margie/A Date With Judy/Gidget mold, were always depicted as the “bad” girls in juvenile delinquency exploitation films. There was no gray area: virgin or "going 2/10

steady" / wife and mother-to-be...that was it.

Cecile and Raymond: Two of a Kind

Given Bonjour Tristesse’s risqué reputation, perhaps it was inevitable that the novel would be brought to the screen by Otto Preminger, a director known at the time for shattering taboos (Carmen Jones - 1954) and challenging censors (The Moon is Blue - 1953, The Man With The Golden Arm - 1954). With a screenplay by Arthur Laurents (Rope, Anastasia) and sumptuous CinemaScope color photography by Georges Perinal (Oscar winner for The Thief of Bagdad – 1940), Bonjour Tristesse was Preminger’s follow-up feature to the critically lambasted Saint Joan, and only the second motion picture appearance of that film’s star: Preminger discovery and protégée Jean Seberg.

Every "plucked from obscurity" cliche in the book applies to then-17-year-old Jean Seberg being discovered by Otto Preminger, signed to a seven-year contract, and thrust into the lead role of Joan of Arc in his calamitous 1957 film version of George Bernard Shaw's play. The poor U.S. reception accorded Bonjour Tristesse when she was but a seasoned veteran of 19 (the film did well in France) brought their professional relationship to a premature end.

Narrated by Cecile and presented as a series of black & white, present-time Paris flashbacks of the colorful summer she and her father spent on the French Riviera a year before, Bonjour Tristesse is a coming-of-age tale in which the getting of wisdom is paid for in bitter tears of selfrecrimination. Wealthy, widowed playboy and zealous bon vivant Raymond (Niven) may be Cecile’s father, but he is anything but a dad. More companion than parent (Cecile calls him by his first name), Raymond’s conduct—a staunch disregard for sincere emotion, and a tireless pursuit of hedonistic distraction—is precisely the kind of immaturity that looks like maturity to an adolescent. Thus, Cecile blindly adopts Raymond’s fecklessness, cynical philosophies as 3/10

her own, unconnected and unmoored to either life experience or self-awareness.

Geoffrey Horne as Philippe

The drama is set in motion when a casual invitation extended to family friend Anne Larson (Kerr) is accepted, upsetting the epicurean balance of the heretofore frolicsome foursome comprised of Raymond and his mistress-of-the-moment Elsa (Demongeot), and Cecile and Philippe (Geoffrey Horne), a vacationing law student who's eight years Cecile’s senior. The arrival of the chic and sophisticated Anne has the splintering affect of an adult entering a children-only birthday party: a welcome change-of-pace and escape from juvenilia for some, a fifth wheel to others, and, perhaps to most, an indeterminable, vaguely-felt threat.

British character-actress Martita Hunt (Anastasia, The Unsinkable Molly Brown) as Philippe's mother, getting poker advice from the "brilliant" Elsa

Whatever the initial response these hollow hedonists have to Anne’s maturity, intelligence, and sensitivity, the distinguishing lingering impression made is the dawning and unwelcome awareness that “There’s gotta be something better than this.” For Raymond, Anne offers the opportunity for genuine happiness and rescue from a life of superannuated adolescence. Cecile, torn between admiration and resentment, keenly fears Anne’s unattainable poise will only serve to emphasize in her father’s eyes (per their atypical father/daughter relationship) the very chasm that exists between her taking on the behaviors of a grown-up and actually being one. Unacquainted with what she potentially stands to gain in acquiring both a mother and a father, Cecile can only see what she stands to lose in terms of the unimpeded path to instant gratification she is currently afforded by Raymond. Anne is more than a rival for her father's affections, Anne is a threat to Cecile's privilege not to have to think. About anything. Anne threatens Cecile with the inevitability of having to grow up, and as such, 4/10

Cecile sees her as a danger to her way of life. And therefore, must be stopped. What follows in this gender-switch Come Blow Your Horn can best be described as a perverse, uniquely Gallic precursor to Disney's The Parent Trap, as Cecile schemes to save her father (and most importantly, herself) from the specter of death as embodied by matrimonial maturation. With predictably tragic results.

Cecile Allocated To The Sidelines

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM Bonjour Tristesse is unequivocally my favorite Otto Preminger film. Although I arrived to the party rather late (I saw it for the first time just five or six years ago), it took absolutely no time for me to fall in love with its chic style, period sophistication, gorgeous French locales, and uniformly splendid performances. Arthur Laurents’ emotionally perceptive screenplay maintains Sagan’s view of Cecile as an unreliable, slightly self-dramatizing narrator. But by way of a nifty framing device that provides a glimpse of Cecile and Raymond’s life in Paris subsequent to that fateful summer (in eloquent black and white), Cecile’s deceptively colorful reveries of an untroubled past come to inform the scenes that take place in the monochrome present in despairingly poignant ways.

It's Only A Paper Moon Enlivening my first viewing of Bonjour Tristesse was its having coincided with the broadcast of the reality TV trainwreck that was Ryan & Tatum: The O'Neals. A program to which I was religiously drawn every Sunday evening. Watching a real-life Cecile (Tatum O'Neal) grappling with a real-life Raymond (Ryan O'Neal) over his having let a reallife Anne come between them (Farrah Fawcett), made for a positively surreal viewing experience.

PERFORMANCES From what I’ve read, much was made at the time of Preminger’s accent-clashing decision to 5/10

pepper Bonjour Tristesse with but a smattering of actual French actors, and instead have the lead Parisian characters of Sagan’s novel portrayed by two distinguished stars of the British cinema and a green teenager from Iowa. I’m sure purists and fans of the book were thrown by it all, but as one raised on a steady diet of Yankee actors in classic films speaking with clipped, mid-Atlantic dialects, not to mention British actors cast as everything from Egyptians (Cleopatra) to Southern belles (Gone With the Wind) to dustbowl Texans (Walk on the Wild Side); I can’t say Seberg’s flat Midwestern twang bumping up against Niven and Kerr’s veddy veddy proper English along France's southern coast caused me much concern. If anything, it made the authentic French accent of the adorable Mylene Demongeot stand out like a sore baguette.

As Elsa, Raymond's mistress-of-the-moment, French actress and '50s/'60s sexsymbol Mylene Demongeot (still acting at 81) is a delight.

Otto Preminger has never struck me as a particularly sensitive director, but the performances he elicits from the entire cast of Bonjour Tristesse are something else again. Thanks largely to the contributions of the cast, Francoise Sagan’s introspective-yet-detached novel is fashioned into a heartbreaking parable about the human propensity for casual cruelty. How unfortunate it is that as a youngster I first came to know of David Niven via his one-note performances in what then-appeared to be an unending stream of atrocious, look-alike sex comedies (Bedtime Story, Prudence & the Pill, The Impossible Years, and The Statue). It took several years for me to come to appreciate—through exposure to his earlier work—what a consummate actor he is. In Bonjour Tristesse Niven brings a stubborn sensitivity to his portrayal of a man-child (it's like his character tries to will himself not to feel anything) who goes from enviable to pitiable over the course of the film.

When Enjoying Each Other's Company Turns Into Needing The Reassurance of Each Other's Company 6/10

I love Jean Seberg in this, although I’m not at all sure I’d have felt the same had I seen Bonjour Tristesse back when it was intended to remedy the damage inflicted by her out-of-herdepth performance in Saint Joan. Time has been kind to Seberg, and the effectiveness of her Cecile is as much a triumph of personal style (she’s the epitome of youthful chic) as it is the distancing needed to assess her performance without all the nagging hype. I find Seberg to be remarkably good here, with even her liabilities (her line readings can sometimes be a little robotic) morphing into assets under the heady sheen of her unassuming star quality.

When it came to adolescent sexual independence, Cecile's unfettered license would likely cause Annette Funicello's waterproof bouffant (the Beach Party movies were still five years away) to turn stark white

But the jewel in Bonjour Tristesse’s crown, the linchpin upon whom the entire emotional thrust of the film pivots, is Deborah Kerr. In an earlier essay on her work in the film Black Narcissus, I acknowledged the high level of regard I have for her talent. Her work in this film is no less astonishing. More than merely serving as an identifiably "substantive" woman by way of her intelligence and poise (to contrast with Raymond's usual flirtations), Kerr confirms the narrative’s assertion regarding her character's sensitivity and vulnerability by giving a beautifully realized performance that is as wise to understanding the inner workings of this kind of woman as it is ultimately heartwrenching. She really is one of my all-time favorite actresses.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS Bonjour Tristesse is one of the most effective uses of 20th Century-Fox's epic-scale CinemaScope process for the conveyance of intimate themes I've ever seen. Although the French Mediterranean coastline has sweep and grandeur, Preminger and cinematographer 7/10

Georges Perinal don't restrict the dimensions of the widescreen process to the mere recording of picture postcard images. The expanse of the cinema frame is consistently enlisted to enhance storytelling and visually underscore the film's emotional conflicts.

Use of negative space to denote Cecile's emotional detachment

Space & framing reinforcing Cecile's perception that Anne and Raymond have united in opposition

Once Anne and Raymond become an item, Cecile (from whose perspective the story is told) always sees herself as just slightly apart


"Brilliant" economy of storytelling: Albertine the maid helps herself to the champagne, Raymond & Anne share a private laugh, Elsa begins to smell a rat, and Philippe & Cecile enjoy not having anything to think about

THE STUFF OF FANTASY Bonjour Tristesse boasts a magnificent soundtrack by composer Georges Auric. I only recently acquired it for my ipod, but when I was young, it was one of those soundtrack albums every home seemed to have.

French singer/actress Juliette Greco, singing the film's title song


Hope Bryce and May Walding are credited with Bonjour Tristesse's costumes and wardrobe, but the clothes that make the strongest impression are the striking, super-stylish gowns and dresses by iconic designer Hubert de Givenchy. Deborah Kerr, whose character is a fashion designer, wears one elegant outfit after another, while pixie-cut Seberg became an instant style trendsetter with her American take on Audrey Hepburn's gamine chic look. Looking at Bonjour Tristesse now—digitally pristine, widescreen and positively gorgeous—it's hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that it was a flop when released 1958 (although the French took to it, but then again...that Jerry Lewis thing....). As I said before, I think it's one of Preminger's best: a legitimate minor masterpiece. And though perhaps not exactly true to the tone of the novel (for which I'm grateful. The film is more moral) it is nevertheless a movie I revisit with a great deal of pleasure and always leave with teary eyes and a sincerely touched heart.

Saul Bass

Copyright © Ken Anderson


Profile for Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For

Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For: Bonjour Tristesse - 1958  

A precocious 17-year-old girl who's adopted the sybaritic ways of her widowed father—a shallow playboy—responds badly when a woman of substa...

Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For: Bonjour Tristesse - 1958  

A precocious 17-year-old girl who's adopted the sybaritic ways of her widowed father—a shallow playboy—responds badly when a woman of substa...