Hollywood filmmaking reached its aesthetic apex in the 50s. Though many directors used the studios’ vast resources merely to tell stories, auteurs were breaking new ground with their use of composition, camera movement, and editing, presenting their narratives clearly enough to meet the demands of the mass audience yet artfully enough to be almost abstract works of moving light.
Otto Preminger’s 1958 Bonjour Tristesse–one of the masterworks of the period–used the relatively new format of CinemaScope to present its five characters in various tableaux. CinemaScope was often used with subjects almost absurdly well suited to the screen’s shape: one of the first such pictures was a submarine movie. But Preminger uses it in this film to depict ambiguous, shifting relationships in a tale of conflicting obsessions. Unavailable in its original form for decades, the film has recently been restored and is being shown here once, on Thursday, September 30, at the Film Center.
Following fairly closely the Francoise Sagan novel on which it’s based, the film’s principal action occurs in summer in and around a villa on the French Riviera rented by wealthy playboy Raymond (David Niven) for himself, his teenage daughter Cecile (Jean Seberg), and his current mistress, Elsa (Mylene Demongeot). The father and daughter are quite close, but the film avoids suggesting incestuous desires, as does the book: Raymond and Cecile are bonded by their shared enjoyment of laughter and silliness, partying, and gentle relaxing (one morning they “smell the day” together). Cecile has become accustomed to Raymond’s steady stream of much younger mistresses, but then a longtime family friend of about his age, accomplished fashion designer Anne Larsen (Deborah Kerr), joins them at the villa. Elsa, feeling abandoned, departs with an admirer named Pablo, and Raymond and Anne become a couple and announce their plans to marry. Unfortunately for Cecile, the serious Anne wants her to study for a philosophy exam (instead she does yoga–“Hindu philosophy”–in her room) and bans her from further contact with her boyfriend, Philippe (Geoffrey Horne). Sensing that her years of happiness with her father may be ending, Cecile hatches an ultimately disastrous plan: she convinces Philippe and Elsa to pose as lovers, hoping to goad Raymond into trying to win Elsa back from the much younger Philippe.
The novel, narrated by Cecile, is a social drama about a girl drawn to superficial pleasures both because of her age and her father’s example. While some of Sagan’s portrait survives in the film, Seberg too often recites lines rather than inhabiting her role, and Niven’s air of uninformed superficiality seems more English than French. Like Sagan–who has Cecile tell the story almost a year after it happened–Preminger begins and ends the film with Cecile filmed in black and white in Paris reflecting in voice-over on her isolation and sadness. By framing color scenes–and on occasion interrupting them–with black-and-white scenes of the present, Preminger makes the world of the seaside story seem more sensual and intense but also impermanent.
Intercutting color with black-and-white footage is an obvious stylistic device, and on the whole Preminger’s style here is relatively transparent, especially compared with such contemporaneous masterworks as Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Welles’s Touch of Evil. Preminger’s camera follows the actions of his characters; only rarely does the camerawork seem self-conscious. But the film does establish a dreamy continuity from one seaside scene to another, a spell at once broken and enhanced by these scenes’ juxtaposition with the gray, bleak present.
Preminger’s style is subtle and restrained. But as in most great narrative films, the camera here in effect reinvents the story, transforming Sagan’s first-person character study into a melancholy dance of personalities at utter cross-purposes. These conflicts are inherent in the narrative: it’s obvious that Raymond will fail to match Anne’s seriousness, just as Cecile fails to match Philippe’s commitment to her, yet Cecile and Raymond show a greater self-awareness than Elsa. But what Preminger does is translate the shifting relationships between these very different personalities into carefully choreographed camera movements, which over time evolve into an intensely expressive vision of ever shifting, ever expanding space.
Most of the film is made up of relatively long tableaulike takes, yet Preminger often transforms static shots of conversations when a character leaves the group. Following one character out of a scene had been a common device in Hollywood filmmaking for decades, but Preminger uses it with such systematic care–often without cutting–that it comes to represent the world’s underlying instability. When a group breaks up, his camera follows their bodies, twisting first one way, then another. Eventually the viewer sees every static composition as founded on shifting sand–a momentary configuration of relationships and emotions that’s bound to change. This approach makes even the affectionate father-daughter bond seem strangely impermanent–though of course the film’s flashbacks also reveal that their relationship has weakened. The camera alone allows us to see that Anne’s self-assurance will be no match for Raymond’s and Cecile’s flighty emotions, not so much because of the kind of people they are as because their sensual, sun-drenched world–represented by the ever present, impossibly blue sea and seen through Preminger’s profoundly ungrounded camera–is ultimately opposed to monogamous affections. Raymond and Cecile’s bond survives only because each allows the other multiple romantic partners.
Fragmentation occurs in various ways in the film’s key scenes. When Raymond tells a lie to conceal his planned meeting with Elsa, he’s one of three people shown at lunch, but he soon wanders off into the background. When Cecile has second thoughts and contemplates ending her scheme, she stands against a wall to the right in a geometric image that shows Anne seated in a window to the left, then suddenly rising and going outside, where she appears on Cecile’s right and moves into the foreground and then walks away. Just before Raymond and Cecile see Philippe and Elsa lying together literally at their feet, they take a twisting path through the woods, which the camera records in a diverse mix of movements and positions, finally filming them from slightly above. Eventually one starts to notice small asymmetries even in the static shots–a slight high angle here, a slight obliqueness there. These perspectives open up a gap between the camera and the characters, implying that the composition we see is only a momentary arrangement of bodies in a wider, freer space. Dancing together, the camera and characters trace the lineaments of both fickleness and obsession, of passing fancies and their dark consequences.
Ultimately the film’s space–the mental construct created by the composition of images over time–has two poles. Tight and entrapping images consistently open up, suggesting a dialogue between imprisonment and freedom–an idea also central to Cecile’s effort to recover her carefree life. At the same time the twisting camera movements and oblique angles combine with the ever present sea to suggest a vaster universe than anything visible in a single composition. The malleability of most of the images indicates the characters’ freedom to wander off. Yet the many different directions they take suggest that their freedom leads to chaos and fragmentation, each locked in a separate world, none in true contact with the others.
Preminger further undermines his romantic idyll, turning it into a near fantasy, with the framing sequences in black and white. These are printed on color stock, so that the grays and blacks are not the absolute tones produced by silver but the more tentative ones produced by color dyes. This also links the black-and-white and color sections, making the gray Paris scenes seem like variations on or consequences of the sunlight-saturated ones, drained of color by the cold reality Cecile and Raymond have tried so hard to avoid.
The idea that compositions, camera movements, and printing black-and-white images on color stock can be used to critique a story is the product of the classical period of Hollywood filmmaking. That ethos seems remote now, when George Lucas has said that the really “fun” part of filmmaking is not directing but designing the fantasy characters and toys. Preminger, by contrast, saw his films as structural wholes; he even brought a lawsuit once when a television station interrupted one of his films with commercials. Moreover, the structure of a film like Bonjour Tristesse is the product of an underlying morality–as are the structures of many masterpieces of that period: the characters’ actions are judged not only by their consequences but by the camera’s eye.
Preminger chooses to end Bonjour Tristesse–a film with few close-ups, whose group shots reveal the enchantments and delusions of mostly “silly” people–with his closest shot yet. We see a saddened Cecile in a mirror applying cold cream to her face while contemplating in voice-over the wall that her failed plotting has erected around her–thoughts admirably rendered by the empty space of the ‘Scope frame surrounding her head. This anomalous close-up provides the film’s final moment of horror: Cecile’s isolation helps us realize that schemes based solely on one’s own emotional needs, even when designed to bind you closer to another, will leave you utterly alone in the end.