With two new biographies published in the last two years and a 23-film retrospective at the Film Forum in New York in 2008, Otto Preminger has undergone a major critical re-evaluation. Of the dozen or so films of Preminger's I've seen, only two—Laura (1944) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959)—impressed me as outstanding movies, both of them highly entertaining works that tell dramatic, compelling stories performed by charismatic actors. As for the rest, nearly all struck me as uneven mixtures of strengths and flaws, often self-important "projects" whose artistic aspirations outstrip Preminger's ability to deal with their subjects.
One of Preminger's movies that was tepidly received upon its release but has recently gained a group of ardent admirers is Bonjour Tristesse (1958). In an article on the Film Forum retrospective, Nick Pinkerton of the Village Voice called the movie "one of the decade's great under appreciated films." David Thomson writes of the film's "brilliance." Andrew Sarris, in The American Cinema, calls it one of Preminger's "masterpieces." Having recently seen Bonjour Tristesse for the first time, I'm afraid I can't concur with such extravagant praise. Like most of the Preminger films I've seen, it strikes me as a mixed bag, a movie whose source, a novel about amoral Continental sensualists by the French writer Françoise Sagan, seems a strange match for Preminger's rather stern Teutonic-American sensibility.
The movie takes place during one summer on the French Riviera as Raymond (David Niven), a middle-aged businessman, his young mistress Elsa (Mylène Demongeot), and his 17-year old daughter Cécile (Jean Seberg) vacation there. These three have a bizarre relationship. The father and daughter have an extremely close—it would not be inaccurate to call it quasi-incestuous—relationship; after a while, the frequent scenes of them kissing each other on the lips become quite unsettling. Raymond and Elsa apparently occupy separate bedrooms, although this might simply be a fiction to placate the servants (or the censors). These people are decadent jet-setters: they do little else but party, booze, laze around on the beach, and gamble at the casino. Raymond is apparently a serial philanderer and Elsa a vacuous gold digger. Cécile, who has just failed her exams, is spoiled, aimless, and self-absorbed.
Into this eccentric household comes Anne (Deborah Kerr), the chic fashion-designer best friend of Cécile's mother (whom we assume to be dead). Anne soon displaces Elsa and becomes engaged to Raymond. Anne seems to be a bit of a prude who believes that Cécile has had too little parental control and attempts to set boundaries for her behavior, making her study to resit her exams and forbidding her from seeing her 25-year old boyfriend Philippe, another idle jet-setter vacationing with his mother in a nearby villa. Cécile, bridling at the restrictions placed on her and intensely jealous of Anne's relationship with her father, then concocts a plot with her boyfriend to break up the engagement. She succeeds, but with tragic results.
The movie is narrated in voice-over by Cécile and framed as a series of long flashbacks recalling the events of that summer. Scenes of the present are shot in black-and-white. These take place in Paris and generally show her carousing at discos and a night club where an almost campy theme song (was Preminger trying to replicate Laura?) is performed by Juliette Greco. The flashbacks to the Riviera are shot in color. (The photography is by the great Georges Périnal, and the Riviera scenes, with their glorious settings and brilliant Mediterranean colors, are ravishingly beautiful.) The movie ends with Cécile discussing with her father plans to return to the South in the summer with Raymond's new mistress—this time, in view of the events that happened the year before on the French Riviera, to the Italian Riviera. The final scene shows Cécile sitting dispiritedly in front of her dressing table mirror, tears streaming down her face.
Andrew Sarris, a longtime admirer of Preminger, calls the film both a comedy ("a Gallic romp"!) and "a tragedy of time and illusion." In doing so, he identifies one of the weirdest things about this movie: its mixture of incongruous tones and oddly arbitrary shifts between them. Overall, the movie—with its melancholic narration by Cécile, strong element of fatalism, and downer ending—seems to be aiming for solemn tragedy, and that is certainly the tone it ends on in that final scene of Cécile in front of the mirror.
Yet it starts off rather flippantly, with Raymond and Cécile joking around on the beach, and returns to that flippant tone from time to time. Raymond's mistress Elsa is portrayed as buffoonish, more ridiculous than comical. In a long sequence at the casino, she gets drunk and impulsively takes up with a South American playboy, amidst much banter with Cécile and Philippe, after she realizes that Raymond is about to dump her for Anne. Much of the lifestyle of the jet-setters is portrayed almost satirically. Then there is the housekeeper. She is forever claiming to be sick and sending one of her two similar-looking sisters with a similar-sounding name as a substitute, leading to a running joke about which of the sisters is working today.
Sarris makes much of Preminger's non-judgmental attitude toward the events and characters in his movies, what he calls Preminger's "ambiguity and objectivity . . . the eternal conflict, not between right and wrong, but between the right-wrong on one side and the right-wrong on the other." Yet I certainly don't get that sense from Bonjour Tristesse: too much in the film seems to contradict this view. Preminger portrays all the characters in the movie except Anne as vain, shallow, and jaded. Moreover, he seems to believe that the result of this self-centered way of life is moral and psychic stagnation for those living it, a stunting of emotions and empathy, and an existence of joyless hedonism. For those who come into contact with them, the result is tragedy. I infer from this attitude a clear sense of moral judgment.
Even the alternation between black-and-white and Technicolor seems to me to reinforce this sense of judgment. Sarris was the originator of the Preminger-as-neutral-observer concept, which, of course, to him gives Preminger a consistent cinematic point of view and therefore entitles him to auteur status. (In The American Cinema he places Preminger just below his "pantheon directors," in the same class as directors like Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, and Preston Sturges.) Sarris writes that "Bonjour Tristesse . . . is transformed by Preminger's color/black-and-white duality into a tragedy of time and illusion."
To me that's overstating the case. This duality is in one sense a strictly functional gimmick: it cues the viewer whether events are taking place in the present (black-and-white) or the past (color). But this stylistic choice also implies that Cécile's present is colorless and drained of the potential for real happiness, whereas her more innocent past was vivid and hopeful. To me the "color/black-and-white duality" indicates more than just a subjective attitude on Cécile's part; it indicates a judgment on the part of the director toward those events in the past. In its milieu and subject, Bonjour Tristesse in many ways resembles Fellini's La Dolce Vita and Antonioni's L'Avventura. Yet Antonioni and even Fellini seem detached from the decadence depicted in their movies in a way that Preminger doesn't. Far from maintaining neutrality, Preminger seems to be condemning the characters and their actions. This is the attitude of a moralist, not a disinterested observer.
Fellini's movie in particular makes an interesting comparison. Like Bonjour Tristesse, La Dolce Vita is in some ways a morality play, one in which forces of good and evil compete for control of the main character. One reason La Dolce Vita works so well is that the character of Marcello is essentially a moral cipher who avoids committing himself to either of the opposing forces competing for his soul. In Cécile, Bonjour Tristesse has no such unformed, neutral main character. Cécile seems already to have devoted herself to her sybaritic lifestyle and, despite her despair at the end, to have no intention of altering the way she lives. If she feels remorse at the fate of Anne, she nevertheless seems equally to feel relief that she can continue unchallenged her way of life and her close relationship with her father.
Cécile is, in fact, the only character in the movie who rings true, who seems to have any substance at all. Niven is very good at playing this type, but that's all his character is—a familiar type—and given the Continental setting, a curiously British one at that, a sort of dissipated version of the British "silly ass." It's hard to believe he's a rich and successful businessman, so ineffectual does he seem about anything beyond his immediate pleasure. Neither is the divine Kerr, as a woman caught up in a situation she doesn't understand, given much to create a fully defined character from. She does make a gorgeous clothes horse and is always the essence of chic appearance and civilized behavior, but little more. Adding to the vagueness of Raymond and Anne is the fact that no serious attempt is ever made to explain or make believable the unlikely emotional and physical attraction between the two. Some of the minor characters—the South American playboy, Philippe's mother (the great Martita Hunt), and especially Elsa—come awfully close to caricature.
The people in Bonjour Tristesse feel synthetic, more the product of imagination than of experience or close observation. The movie seems the creation of a filmmaker trying with only partial success to deal with intricacies of behavior and motivation that he has little understanding of. Preminger shows us people and their actions without offering any real insight into either. Some might see this as a positive thing, might call it objectivity or ambiguity, might praise it as an indicator of stylistic identity. I don't.
I wonder if it is instead the result of an intellect too perfunctory to analyze complexities of character and plot thoroughly, too casual to do more than present a surface view of people and events. Antonioni and Fellini managed to make movies about superficial people leading superficial lives that were not superficial movies. Antonioni gave his films depth with the evocative force of his astonishing images, Fellini by probing beneath the surface of his characters to suggest latent depths. In Bonjour Tristesse, though, Preminger's images seem beautiful yet empty, his characters shallow not only in nature but also in conception. For me the movie's superficiality and slickness unintentionally mirror those same traits in the characters and events it depicts. Bonjour Tristesse is not without its virtues, but there is no way I would call it a masterpiece. Like so much of Preminger's work, it is a film of major aspirations and modest accomplishments.