‘Bonjour Tristesse’ was New Wave before there was such a thing, Jean Seberg included

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Jean Seberg in 'Bonjour Tristesse' (Courtesy Film Forum/Photofest)
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Extending an invitation to begin your summer of luxurious disappointment and distress a few weeks early, Film Forum is trotting out a pristine D.C.P. restoration of Otto Preminger's ravishing and slightly wacky Bonjour Tristesse this week.

Essential big-screen viewing for CinemaScope fetishists, the 1958 film is one of late-classic Hollywood's most eloquent triumphs of mise-en-scène over source material. It's an experience that will make you wish you had the time, or the wherewithal, or the proper seaside location in which to be so properly and officially Sad.

Bonjour Tristesse is Preminger's faithful adaptation of the eponymous novel written by Françoise Sagan, a 19-year-old Frenchwoman whose depiction of world-weary cynicism and chic depravity made her the youngest author to land a novel atop the New York Times best-seller list. A moderately lurid account of intersecting obsessions and a quasi-incestuous family bond, both film and novel are narrated by Cecile (Jean Seberg), a young, beguilingly short-haired socialite being led through the motions in decadent, jazz-drenched Paris. Sounding prematurely like a ghost, she bemoans the empty pleasures of the glamorous life and recounts the events—first idyllic, then tragic—of the previous summer's holiday on the Riviera. Matching his palette to her turbulent teenage emotions, Preminger shoots the present-tense Parisian scenes in crisp black-and-white, and the long flashbacks in glorious color.

In the villa by the shore, Cecile, a supposed part-time philosophy student, falls way behind on her Spinoza. But a more disciplined study schedule wouldn't leave time for yoga, sunbathing, scuba diving, or cavorting with her latest temporary beau, Philippe (Geoffrey Horne). She's frivolous, but check out her role model: Raymond (David Niven), the father she calls by his first name, is a widower who's taken lightly to renewed bachelorhood, shuffling through a ceaseless supply of younger mistresses. That summer, his invited housemates include the ditzy and endearing Elsa (Mylene Demongeot) and later, an old family friend, the stuffy fashion designer Anne (Deborah Kerr). Her arrival triggers Cecile's Daddy's-girl heartbreak, and worse, threatens to end their carefree existence, sentencing both father and daughter to unwanted adulthood. It's time, in other words, to hit the books, but Cecile would rather hatch a plan.

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“Seventeen now isn't what it was when you were seventeen,” Cecile tells her aspiring stepmother and would-be reformer, with more than a hint of self-dramatizing malice.

The notoriously autocratic Preminger was obsessed with the idea of making Seberg a star, or at least justifying his earlier decision to select her from thousands of applicants to play Joan of Arc in his much-maligned George Bernard Shaw adaptation Saint Joan (1957). Untrained and awkward, Seberg the performer seems like exactly what she is: a druggist's daughter from Iowa pretending—without the bother of changing her accent or manners—to be a pampered Gallic sophisticate. Even when staring directly into the camera, she seems vacant and disembodied—entranced as well as undeniably entrancing. Her critics didn't look for the silver lining: In the New York Herald Tribune review, William Zinsser wrote that “Jean Seberg is about as far from a French nymph as milk is from Pernod.” For Arthur Knight in the Saturday Review, Preminger “apparently has not succeeded in convincing Miss Seberg that she is an actress.” The New Yorker offered Seberg the prescription of “a good solid, and possibly therapeutic, paddling.”

Americans didn't think she (or the movie) was French enough, but, somewhat fascinatingly, some of the film's French viewers were absolutely riveted by Seberg's seductively nonchalant attempt to become one of them. Francois Truffaut would go on to call her “the best actress in Europe.” And after seeing Preminger's film and her ill-fitting but promisingly eccentric performance, Jean-Luc Godard immediately cast Seberg in Breathless (1960), envisioning her Patricia as a continuation of the earlier character, haircut and all. Patricia, the insouciant, free-loving New York Herald Tribune salesgirl, would do as much for the look of the French New Wave as her onscreen boyfriend Jean-Paul Belmondo did for the attitude. Her beauty and affectlessness, combined with an ability to quote Faulkner, would mark her for Godard as an almost ideal American expatriate. She would go on to appear alongside Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon (1969), but her Hollywood career was essentially already finished by the time Preminger discovered her.

Perhaps the most understated of Hollywood's Cahiers du Cinéma-approved auteurs, Preminger worked confidently in every genre, savoring above all the limitations of visual space. Whatever gifts he bequeathed to the Nouvelle Vague, Preminger's own work is marked by a methodical calm, an interest in choreographing characters within a fixed onscreen space rather than exploiting the camera's mobility. Working with CinemaScope's widened aspect ratio in Bonjour Tristesse, he subtly underscores Cecile's gradual expulsion from filial intimacy by ushering her from the center of the frame—which the earlier parts of the film let her dominate—toward the edges. That she remains within the frame at all testifies to the film's concern with psychological entrapment. Preminger's mastery of cinematic language, fully evident here and on equally ingenious display in 1959's envelope-pushing Anatomy of a Murder (available on a newly digitally restored Blu-Ray/DVD from Criterion), was never showy; he preferred the close observation to the emphatic gesture. Not for nothing has his camera placement been called “objective.”

Down to its title, Bonjour Tristesse sounds like an American parodist's idea of a European Art Film, but for all its various pleasures, Preminger's movie is of particular historical interest for inspiring this genre. The lush sensuality and upper-class ennui of Godard's Contempt, Antonioni's L'Avventura, and Fellini's La Dolce Vita—all of which contain bleak scenes set by the seashore, as if in tribute—all of that begins here.

’Bonjour Tristesse’ screens at Film Forum today through May 3.