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Bonjour Tristesse

The MoMA is presenting a series of Otto Preminger films this month, and Ms NOLA asked me if I'd like to accompany her and her parents to an eight-thirty showing of Bonjour Tristesse yesterday evening. As Kathleen would be working late, I thought I might at least spend a bit more time with M & Mme NOLA. I didn't know what to expect of the movie. I'd never seen it, and only fell into talking about it in conjunction with recent discussions, here and there, of Jean Seberg. I had never stopped to think about the oddity of a Hollywood adaptation of a sensational French novel. In 1958, I might have been old enough (just) to have seen Vertigo, but Bonjour Tristesse would have been quite beyond the pale for a ten year-old. Since then, Preminger's reputation has never amounted to the sum of his parts, largely, I think, because he's the very opposite of Hitchcock, a dabbler in every genre. People who like Anatomy of a Murder will probably loathe Forever Amber. I certainly don't remember any Preminger festivals from college days, for what that's worth, which isn't much. And then there's the ambiguity of Laura. It's clearly a top-fifty film, sometimes a top-ten, but there's no denying that it dabbles in glamorous trashiness. It's very highly distilled pulp. So I haven't made a point of seeing movies just because Otto Preminger produced and directed them.

What a revelation, to see Bonjour Tristesse at a time when I've been reviewing the films that were very serious when I was young. The Antonionis, the Godards. The movies that I didn't really understand - even though I certainly felt their anti-bourgeois sting. Movies such as L'Eclisse didn't prompt disgust with the affluent classes; they merely reminded me that I belonged to one and would always belong. In many ways, Bonjour Tristesse is the ancestor of such films, and how telling that it's an "American" picture produced by a Viennese!

As film writer Foster Hirsch, who introduced the movie last night, pointed out, Preminger was the first filmmaker to present the inanity of unanchored life. He put together a dazzling show that American critics didn't like at all and that French critics were mad about. If the argument that Preminger inspired the Nouvelle Vague hasn't been made, then it's time that someone made it. Rather than analyse the film - a rather premature undertaking, since I've only seen Bonjour Tristesse once - I'll just offer a list of details that interested me. If you don't know the picture, I hope that they'll pique your curiosity.

  • The car in the water at the end. I'd like Antonioni to deny that this is the source of a similarly-toned episode in L'Eclisse.
  • The housemaid who, while all the fashionable guests are helping themselves to coupes of champagne, drains, as surreptitiously as possible, a tumbler of booze, off to the left. It's sort of like one of Hitchcock's appearances in his own movies, but also quite different. The help have no respect for their masters. Which is another way of saying that they are characters, too, not "housemaids."
  • Martita Hunt, ferocious in green taffeta at the craps table. (Craps has just been introduced on the Côte d'Azur.) I first saw Hunt in The Brides of Dracula, something I wasn't supposed to see at the time, and I've never gotten over her performance as Dracula's mom.
  • Mylène Demongeot's preposterous ribbon-basket hat. Very Fellini. The women's clothes, by the way, are incredibly beautiful, Givenchy and Hermès. You could watch Bonjour Tristesse for the couture alone.
  • Deborah Kerr. Never has she looked quite so sleek and sophisticated - and yet she plays (as usual) the character who stands for "the good life," in the moral sense. (She actually labors, at fashion design.) It's almost impossible to cope with the fact that in her very next performance she would be the beaten-down daughter of Gladys Cooper, in Separate Tables. On my first trip to London, in 1977, I saw Ms Kerr, who was born in 1921, play Candida in the West End. It was a stretch, but it held.
  • The gist of the story of Bonjour Tristesse is that Cécile, a rich girl of seventeen who, in Henry James's view at least, has been exposed to adult misbehavior far too early in life. resents the steadying but restrictive influence that a prospective stepmother (her own late mother's best friend) is going to have on the companionate life that she and her father have been quite inappropriately enjoying. (She calls him by his first name and kisses him, if briskly, on the mouth.) She comes up with an opera buffa plan to break off the impending nuptials, and there is a great deal of youthful plotting and scampering about. The rub of the story is that the child has no idea how very unfunny the consequences of her ruse will be. That giggling can lead to tragedy is something that the Nouvelle Vague auteurs would treat more starkly, more absurdly. But - and, again, Antonioni comes to mind, as well as Fellini - their films are certainly marked by unconsciously inappropriate laughter. Monica Vitti certainly knew how to transpose teenaged naughtiness into adult registers.
  • The alternation between the black-and-white of the framing scenes, set in Paris, and the glorious color of the Côte d'Azur.
  • I'll come back to that, but let's note that this movie was shot entirely on location in France. The actors may have been Anglophone. But as a Viennese, Preminger demonstrably knew how to coax his cast into speaking English as if it were speaking French. There is an insistence on the word "brilliant" - fun experiences are always "brilliant" - that points to a lot of génial in Françoise Sagan's novel.
  • The Paris, black-and-white scenes are solemn and insouciant at the same time. That's to say that the buildings are solemn and the people are insouciant. While the Mediterranean scenes are backflashes in which the story unfolds, the black-and-white scenes constitute a period of less than twenty-four hours. They are increasingly conducted in voice-over, as the girl, now about a year older, looks back on the previous summer and refers to the "invisible wall of memories" that stands between her and all genuine feeling. Preminger dances on the cusp between the European idea that memories can be crippling and the American idea that you can do things that are so bad that you never feel right ever again. How strange that these are two different ideas!
  • David Niven is quietly amazing as Cécile's father. He does the usual "tennis, anyone?" thing with consummate leggerezza while reflecting the dark awareness that he is not leading his life correctly. He and Jean Seberg are very handsome people whose lives are very, well, fucked up.
  • There is a scene in which Cécile and the boy next door, Philippe, are about to succumb to passion-on-the-tiles. This is a pivotal scene in the plot, because Anne (Deborah Kerr, as the stepmother-to-be) walks in on the action and decides that the two kids can't see each other anymore. What you see when you hear Anne's admonition is a pair of a pair of legs, one white and smooth, the other lean and hairy. The sheer hairiness of Philippe's legs recalled, for me, Picasso's slightly pornographic Suite Vollard, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I don't think that I have ever seen a more sudden telegraphing of "where this is going." Philippe is a young law student, but, from the thighs down he's a satyr.

And the satyr was there last night, too: Geoffrey Horne, the actor who plays Philippe. He sat in the row in front of us, along with Preminger's widow, Hope, who at the time that Bonjour Tristesse was made was only Hope Bryce, the costume coordinator. After the showing, they both spoke, and Mr Horne inspired a lot of thought about the passage of time. We'd seen him, at twenty-five, playing a virile but soulful (and somewhat naive) twenty-five year-old. Last night, he was seventy-three: hale and hearty, but definitely not "the boy in the Speedo" whom Mr Hirsch introduced. Mr Horne did say how grateful he was that Bonjour Tristesse was as old as it was, because "nowadays, we'd have been naked, and what an embarrassment that would be!" Everyone laughed. But of course it wouldn't be embarrassment. It would just be a more mercilessly chiseled loss.


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