Jean Seberg is as captivating as ever in Otto Preminger’s newly restored 1958 drama.
Though it is in nearly every respect a classically handsome production — shot in Cinemascope, in Technicolor, by famed French cinematographer Georges Perinal, with music by Georges Auric and titles by Saul Bass — the most striking feature of Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse remains the one which breaks from cinematic tradition: Jean Seberg’s iconic, cryptic stare out into the camera, returning our gaze, holding it, as if daring us to read her thoughts.
Seberg’s voiceover, draped over this memorable sequence, has the regrettable consequence of explicating her feelings too clumsily, reducing the depths of melancholy appreciable in the image to a rather trite expression of adolescent ennui. And yet the gesture still seems evocative despite the undue authorial hand-holding. That one vacant look anticipates many cinematic trends and innovations of the years to come: in its hints of existential despair one can see the sick soul of Europe soon articulated by Antonioni in L’Avventura and in the brazen fourth-wall address one senses an invitation for Godard to follow, in Breathless, both from 1960.
“I just wish I were a lot older,” bemoans Seberg’s Cecile, “or a lot younger.” The same wish might be made for Bonjour Tristesse, whose influence extends further than its reputation. It’s an oddly appropriate fate for a film more the product of discerning curation than original construction. Its story is little more than a shopworn tale of Oedipal jealousy between an impressionable young girl and her philandering father, but Preminger endows proceedings with every available luxury, and via the power of cinematic decadence he transforms a work of dimestore fiction into a sweeping epic.
Preminger’s cinematic inspirations are similarly well-assembled: the presence of Deborah Kerr, especially while playing up her most nun-like qualities, recalls Powell and Pressburger, a reference doubly reinforced considering she stars alongside David Niven; it isn’t a stretch then to imagine the film’s alternately black-and-white and Technicolor photography as intended to evoke a kind of afterlife indebted, visually, to the divided worlds of A Matter of Life and Death.
Even an ageing Roland Culver, who played the crusty Colonel Betteridge in P&P’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, shows up as a “bad influence” in the form of the perpetually soused Mr Lombard, a stunt-casting reference so subtle it’s doubtful Preminger meant for it to be much noticed (That Martita Hunt also appears, in a role not unlike her Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations, might more plausibly be incidental, but it’s difficult to know how deeply Preminger layered his intertextual citations.)
Bonjour Tristesse is a film founded on a long and substantive cinematic tradition, a fond reminiscence of history that endeavours to emulate rather than say something new. It is self-consciously constructed from recognisable archetypes, built and fine-tuned by peerless craftsmen, and is in a sense the platonic ideal of an airless, impersonal production. That the film would come to endure as a reference point for others is merely another of cinema’s many great ironies.
Otto Preminger’s haunting Riviera ménage à trois is restored.
A little stilted though it sits at a fascinating juncture in film history.
Much more to it than initially meets the eye.