Bonjour Tristesse (1958)


Bil’s rating (out of 5):  BBBB

USA, 1958.  Wheel Productions.  Screenplay by , based on the novel by .  Cinematography by .  Produced by Otto Preminger.  Music by .  Production Design by .  Costume Design by .  Film Editing by

Otto Preminger’s melodrama about the pains of coming of age may seem like trashy studio fare (the pangs of adolescence being set against a contrivedly beautiful French Riviera backdrop), but the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague considered this one of their strongest inspirations for very good reason.

Jean Seberg is superb as a young woman who lives the high life with her playboy father David Niven, accompanying him to fancy parties in Paris during the social season, in summer amusing herself on the coast while he brings the latest in his long string of pretty young girlfriends for his own entertainment.

Present day scenes are shot in inky black and white as she tries to kick off her cares and enjoy the night life while remembering the previous year, filmed in glorious full colour, when Niven attempted a serious romance with her late mother’s best friend (Deborah Kerr). Kerr is a fashion designer who hopes to cure Niven’s Peter Pan syndrome while taking her new role as Seberg’s female influence seriously; her interfering in Seberg’s affairs does not go well and the younger woman soon turns nasty in her attempt to go back to the glory days of being an unsupervised latchkey kid.

Seberg’s actions to get her father and potential new stepmother to break up end in consequences that are more than she bargained for, and the brilliance of the film is the honesty with which it treats the bitterness that ensues: Preminger doesn’t utilize the sun-drenched cinematography and gorgeous cast as a distraction from the misery, the plush aesthetics are ironically employed as the failed cover for Seberg’s painful entry into the moral snakepit that is adult life.

Because he has the guts to keep his foot on that melancholic pedal until the very last shot, the film feels grown-up even by today’s standards, unwilling to reassure us of the kind of robust morality that studio fare usually favoured. Kerr’s role in particular shows off a more complex side to her than the fifties were used to, she revels in playing a character whose dignified demeanor is a brittle distraction from her insecurities and not the flawless armor that it usually is in her roles from this period.


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