Review by Michael Nordine
Posted on 27 April 2012
Source 35mm print
Categories TCM Classic Film Festival 2012
Translated literally, Bonjour Tristesse means “Hello sadness.” It’s a fitting title. Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s novel contains no shortage of woe, but what’s most notable is how this sadness arrives: out of the blue, and to polite company. The small group of elites who comprise this film’s cast are the sort who, even at their worst, know to keep up appearances. Chief among them are 17-year-old Cécile and her father Raymond, two wealthy Parisians with an uncomfortably close relationship who vacation in the Riviera and either accept or enable one another’s romantic entanglements. Their dynamic is immediately fascinating for the fact that it alternates between chummy and inappropriate, sometimes at the expense of their significant others, as well as the ways in which the two of them build a sort of wall around themselves. Chaos of any sort (usually romantic) could be swirling all around them but, as long as their unwritten rules are followed, all remains well between them. And it does, at least until Raymond lets an outsider into the space previously reserved for his daughter and himself. It’s a sort of invasion, an unspoken violation of their agreement, and it’s from this small act that every other misfortune arises.
The key visual motif used to draw this out is a mixture of sun-kissed (the summer house) and tinted black-and-white (clubs, casinos, restaurants) cinematography. The latter is meant to signify and mirror Cécile’s ennui in the places that were once her natural state, an effect that lingers elsewhere: vibrant colors notwithstanding, Preminger’s film is borderline noir. And since the sunny scenes exist only in flashback, we know all the while that it’s only a matter of time before their brightness gives way to the as-yet unexplained bleakness of the present. What starts as a series of breezy, overlapping romances slowly turns into something darker, even tragic, and by the time the transition has made itself plain hindsight makes it appear inevitable. But Preminger, Cécile, and Raymond keep us guessing all the while—it’s almost like a game, the kind that seems funny until someone gets hurt.
As Cécile, Jean Seberg often resembles a prototype for the sort of characters we now call manic pixie dream girls: flighty, quick to fall in love, and quirky in a way that sometimes seems affected. (When Jean-Luc Godard cast her in Breathless a year later, he did so in the hopes that she’d essentially repeat the same performance.) But beneath her put-on appearance are the sort of traits not typically found among MPDGs of late, namely childlike coldness and even a touch of malice toward those who would disrupt her lifestyle. Where Cécile’s immediately noticeable qualities appear to have been inherited from her father, the more brooding (and, at times, calculating) side of her personality is all her own. Certain people and situations bring it out more than others, but even when hidden behind a smile its presence can be felt. It’s through certain looks in her eyes and feigned enthusiasm that we see her becoming the jaded young woman we’re introduced to at film’s beginning.
The way it reaches that point is as lively as it is dispiriting. Bonjour Tristesse is a sort of cinematic mixing pot, one filled with any number of familiar (which is to say, seemingly friendly) tropes and characters, but what emerges from it is difficult to pin down. At its best and in hindsight it’s not unlike The Rules of the Game insofar as its comic elements slowly give way to tragedy, and yet its climax doesn’t render everything that precedes it ironic or sad by association. Like the bright cinematography, memory keeps the better days intact.
By the end, when one prominent character has gone from being spoken of in the present tense to the past tense just moments after dying, we know more than a life has been extinguished. Neither will admit it, but both father and daughter know that the wall they once erected between them and the sad outside world has crumbled—people move on, but with each unhappy change they resemble their former selves less and less. No more “listening to the crickets,” no more marriage proposals, no more French Riviera. Next time, they’re going to Italy instead—the horror.
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