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DVD SAVANT

Bonjour Tristesse


Bonjour Tristesse
Columbia TriStar
1958 / Color + B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 94 min. / Street Date December 16, 2003 / 29.95
Starring Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Jean Seberg, Mylène Demongeot, Geoffrey Horne, Juliette Gréco, Walter Chiari, Martita Hunt, Roland Culver, Jean Kent, David Oxley
Cinematography Georges Périnal
Production Designer Roger Furse
Costume Design Givenchy
Film Editor Helga Cranston
Original Music Georges Auric
Written by Arthur Laurents from a novel by Francoise Sagan
Produced and Directed by Otto Preminger

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Otto Preminger directed this late 50s pot boiler, a romantic tragedy with hints of possible incest. Many of the French locations are real but David Niven and Deborah Kerr speak English as an opinionated Paris designer and a wealthy French womanizer; Preminger discovery Jean Seberg is the daughter growing up with an odd set of values. Beautifully shot and quite impressive in CinemaScope on DVD, Bonjour Tristesse is an awkward film with a loyal band of devotees.

Synopsis:

Cecile (Jean Seberg) enjoys the Paris nightlife and remembers the previous summer in the South of France: she and her playboy father Raymond (David Niven) spent the summer at a seaside chateau making merry. Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) was Raymond's playmate for the summer, until old flame fashion designer Anne Larson (Deborah Kerr) showed up. Soon Raymond and Anne were engaged, and the fun stopped: the bossy woman cut off Cecile's flirtation with neighbor boy Philippe (Geoffrey Horne) and insisted she bear down on her studies.

Bonjour Tristesse came out at just about the time that critics turned on Otto Preminger. Starting with Anatomy of a Murder his currency with the critics would rise again, but in 1957 Preminger was considered a promising talent who made Laura and then collapsed into confused melodramas and ill-conceived pictures like The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell and Saint Joan. The Joan of Arc picture was criticized for the casting of American Jean Seberg, and the general disapproval of her continued in this followup.

Handsomely filmed, the show suffers from what now seems to be terminal obviousness. Cecile and Raymond, affectionate but certainly not incestuous in any literal sense of the word, spend a leisurely summer at a seaside villa pursuing suntans, swimming and taking in the night life while Raymond beds his latest casual girlfriend, Elsa. The moral inference is that Raymond is a bad influence on 17 year old Cecile, what with all the sun and sex and nights spent drinking, dancing and gambling in town. The pair have housemaids to wait on them, beautiful wardrobes and fancy cars to drive; Cecile is failing in school and doesn't care, and her father doesn't care either.

Then the Deborah Kerr character Anne Larson comes into the story. Niven's completely smitten with her. Exactly what their earlier relationship was, or how Anne can compete with his younger playgirls, is unclear. Raymond ditches his young plaything to chase after her. As soon as she has her hooks into him, Anne lowers the boom on Cecile, who all of a sudden must be policed to see that she studies. With puritanical righteousness Anne forbids her to see a young neighbor anymore, the wholesome Philippe (Geoffrey Horne, working off his Columbia contract from Bridge on the River Kwai?). The normally lax Raymond caves in to Anne's wishes and Cecile acts as if her dad had been taken away from her. All of a sudden she's being referred to as a child again. So far as Cecile is concerned, Anne has to be gotten rid of.

Part of the loyal following of the film comes from the Francoise Sagan novel. It was adapted by revered playwright and screenwriter Arthur Laurents (West Side Story. Rope, Anastasia). Bonjour Tristesse suffers for the same reasons that would any racy French novel if adapted by 1950s Hollywood standards. If there was any bite to the theme of incest or anything less than chaste about the sleeping arrangements at villa Raymond, it's gone now. Elsa has her own room and a bad sunburn motivates Raymond's hands-off behavior. The closest thing to an orgy is a line of drunken dancing down at the resort town. Everybody keeps their clothes on and their conversation above board.

The speeches that Laurents finds for his characters never break the barrier of theatricality. The dialogue could all come from a faux-upscale MGM picture made ten or twenty years earlier. Even more obvious is that no matter how good the acting is, none of it seems French, even with all the authentic locations. Kerr and Niven are excellent actors and have an advantage over Seberg in that their dubbing (the movie looks to be largely post-dubbed) is excellent, whereas Seberg always sounds overdirected, hollow and false. By contrast, the pert Mylène Demongeot and Walter Chiari's real accents sound like speech impediments. The story is so specific about this being a carefree, morally lax French summer, that the whole enterprice seems forced.  1

Jean Seberg is visually interesting as Cecile, expressing well a pampered young girl content to be a playgirl or love object and disinterested in anything more complicated. She was again the target of critics who considered her Preminger's Folly. They wouldn't start treating her with respect until the next year's The Mouse that Roared, an overrated comedy that gives her little to do.

Cecile's plot to discredit Anne appears to backfire, with tragic results; as we don't really understand Raymond's attraction to Anne, the romantic tragedy is a little on the strained side. Can we believe that the fickle Raymond was really going to settle down? I think not.

Preminger wraps his story in some 'European' cinema trappings that also seem a Hollywood attempt to give American viewers an upscale continental film experience. The story is told with a flashback structure, presenting Cecile as a jaded Parisienne pursued by attractive men in fancy cars, but lost in dreamy memories. This material is in B&W, and dissolves to color to tell the tale of the fateful previous summer. Besides telling us that Cecile and Philippe didn't hook up, the structure sets us up for a story where we know something goes wrong, The main tale is thereby allowed to amble along without a set direction (not a bad thing).

Juliette Gréco sings the downbeat title tune in a nightclub. The Georges Auric song, purred by an upcoming star (also being groomed by a big Hollywood hotshot) almost comes across as product placement.  2

The flavor of English actors suppressing a Gallic feel is confirmed with David Oxley (The Hound of the Baskervilles) as 'Jacques', and the veddy English Roland Culver and Jean Kent as Mr. and Mrs. Lombard. Martita Hunt as Philippe's card-playing mother is so good, we don't care that she's not French. Ms. Hunt made her mark in fine movies from Great Expectations (as Mrs. Havisham) to The Brides of Dracula.

Goateed choreographer Tutte Lemkow can be seen dancing in the nightclub party sequence; his interesting looks must have served him well in auditions because he shows up in lots of Columbia pictures around this time, playing a Greek peasant in The Guns of Navarone, for example. He later engineered the complex bal des vampires in Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers.


Columbia TriStar's DVD of Bonjour Tristesse will be a treat to its confirmed fans, who can't have had too many opportunities to see it as intended in its CinemaScope dimensions. The color is fine, which is a relief; we saw it once at UCLA in the early 70s and the only studio print available was a faded purple - the change from B&W to color was hardly perceptable. I don't know if the film was originally in stereo sound, but the DVD appears to be mono.

The improved color restores a feature of Bonjour Tristesse that made a definite splash in 1958. Saul Bass's title designs had been around for a couple of years, but really started getting noticed with this show ... the simple, animated pastel images forming a sad face set the film off on the right note. Preminger would depend on Bass for most of his films, often using stark Bass designs for his posters as well. This DVD cover uses an alternate (original?) poster design featuring Seberg ... all the posters I remember were the straight Bass graphic.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Bonjour Tristesse rates:
Movie: Good --
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 25, 2003


Footnotes:

1. Slight adjustment: Anne Larson (Kerr) may be intended to be English. Under the circumstances, it's hard to tell, unless I missed a direct reference.
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2. There's a sometimes-embarrassing movie called Joanna from 1969 that attempts a very Bonjour Tristesse -style jet set ambience, only inflected with soft-focus TV commercial visuals - telephoto lenses, fragmented cutting, helicopter shots. It actually plays well much of the time, with the schmaltzy music of Rod McKuen making a melodramatic counterpoint. One of the songs is Hello Heartbreak, which corresponds exactly to the Auric-Laurents song Bonjour Tristesse.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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