Monday, May 13, 2019

David Niven Says Bonjour Tristesse to Deborah Kerr

Jean Seberg and David Niven.
Seventeen-year-old Cecile and her wealthy, widower father split their time between Paris and the French Riveria. Their goal in life is to have fun. The middle-aged Raymond (David Niven) woos young attractive women, keeps them around for a few months, and then discards them. Cecile (Jean Seberg) likes the company of handsome, young men, but she also has no intent of fostering a relationship. Why should she? She has her father and that is all she needs.

Their world gets turned upside down when Raymond invites Anne, a friend of Cecile's deceased mother, for an extended visit at their coastal summer home. Anne (Deborah Kerr) is a strong, self-assured woman with a successful career as a fashion designer. She resists Raymond's obvious charms, which only makes her more attractive to him. Cecile quickly develops a love-hate relationship with Anne, who provides stability in the midst of the "fun first" chaos.

Jean Seberg as Cecile.
Everything changes again when Raymond falls in love with Anne and proposes marriage. Cecile decides that the nuptials cannot take place and develops an elaborate scheme to break up Raymond and Anne. Her actions set into motion an inevitable tragedy.

Author Francoise Sagan was nineteen-years-old when she wrote the then-scandalous novel Bonjour Tristesse in 1954. It quickly became a bestseller and attracted the attention of Otto Preminger. The famed director had completed Saint Joan, an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play about Joan of Arc, in 1957. The picture and its star, an unknown named Jean Seberg, had been skewered by the critics.

One suspects that the controversial subject matter of Bonjour 
Tristesse--the film vaguely hints at an incestuous father-daughter relationship--drew Preminger's interest. After all, he never shied away from controversy in films like The Moon Is Blue, The Man With the Golden Arm, and the later Anatomy of a Murder. The challenge with the film version of Bonjour Tristesse (1958) is that, despite two classy leads, a beautiful setting, and plenty of style, the story and characters are simply too shallow.

David Niven as Raymond.
As played by Jean Seberg, Cecile is a petulant brat and her father lacks any parenting skills. When Anne tells Cecile to study for her exams, the latter pouts and appeals to her father. He takes the easy way out by siding with Anne. From that point on, Cecile spends all her time plotting an exit for Anne.

Preminger frames the film so that Cecile tells the story in flashback as she reflects on the emptiness of her and Raymond's lives. To emphasize the impending tragedy, the "current day" scenes are shown in harsh black & white while the flashbacks with Anne are in color, apparently signaling happier times.

Deborah Ker as Anne.
Deborah Kerr gives the best performance by virtue of having the most interesting role. Anne is a character to be admired for being practical while surrounded by a sea of frivolity. However, at the same time, she is not wholly likable and is quick to jump at conclusions. When she sees Cecile and her boyfriend passionately kissing, her reaction is to ban Cecile from seeing the young man.

While Bonjour Tristesse flopped at the box office, all the principals recovered nicely. Preminger made Anatomy of a Murder--arguably his best film--in 1959. David Niven won an Best Actor Oscar for Separate Tables that same year. Deborah Kerr co-starred with Cary Grant in one of her most famous pictures, An Affair to Remember, in 1957. And Jean Seberg became a French icon with her performance in Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave masterpiece Breathless in 1960.

For the record, Bonjour Tristesse translates to "hello sadness." Juliette Greco warbles a woeful, depressing song of the same title during one of the opening scenes.

4 comments:

  1. The movie sounds interesting if not totally compelling.

    I should have stuck with French class then I wouldn't have assumed from the promotion and colour that this was one of those sophisticated comedies. Sigh!

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  2. I must put in a word for Mylène Demongeot who played Elsa, Raymond's rejected mistress. I think her performance was the best in the film. Many years later she was equally as good as Manou, the bar owner and former call girl, in '36' the great French cop movie.

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    1. I agree that she was very good as Elsa. I haven't seen 36, but noticed that she had a very long screen career.

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  3. It sounds like some squandered opportunities here, but I'm still keen to see this. Thanks for putting it on my radar.

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