Among favorite cinephile pet auteurs, no one's reputation has had a rougher ride than that of Otto Preminger. Having directed an instant classic (Laura) very early in his career, he remained highly respected (and loathed) in his heyday for always tackling tough issues and commendably showing wanton disregard for the state of the Production Code (for their candor, his films were repeatedly banned in this city or that), but then mysteriously fell out of vogue for, apparently, making an attempt to keep up with the times (Skidoo). Even still today many write off Preminger as a taboo-breaking footnote in the history of film, of little or no artistic merit. But he's due for an upswing, and Bonjour Tristesse will be one of the cornerstones of his rejuvenated canonical standing.
As the film opens, the teenaged Cecile (Jean Seberg) is tolerating, albeit stone-faced, an evening in Paris with her rich playboy father, Raymond (David Niven), and their for-the-evening companions. To Cecile, it's simply one more evening of dancing, drinking, and playing the part of a sought-after socialite. She narrates to the audience her discontent, her deep-seated ennui with the glamorous life, and remembers a time in the recent past when she was content with the endless parties and irresponsibility. In flashback, Cecile is taking a two-week summer holiday with her father on the French Riviera to relax after having carelessly flunked all her exams. Staying at their villa is the ditzy bombshell Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) and, eventually, Cecile's prim godmother Anne (Deborah Kerr).
For whatever reason, Cecile is shocked when Raymond casually dumps Elsa (who shared with Cecile a love for a life of play) and announces that he's going to marry Anne. In no time flat, Anne cracks down on Cecile's carefree attitudes, imploring that she hit the books for the next round of exams and insisting that she cut dead her fling with the stud next door, Phillippe (Geoffrey Horne). Even more disturbing, she starts to encroach on Raymond's lifestyle as well, implying that the three should stop hanging with their venal circle of friends. Clearly, Anne's presence in their lives has changed the narrating, "present-day" Cecile, but mysteriously Anne is no longer part of the picture. Mastering the flashback structure, Preminger generates an enormous amount of suspense with the promise of connecting Cecile's two disparate moods.
A first viewing of Bonjour Tristesse—and, to some extent, many other Preminger films—tends to accentuate the seeming multitude of faults even as one revels in Preminger's remarkable filmmaking savvy. For instance, Preminger occasionally seems to be putting undue stress on the most salacious elements of Francoise Sagan's potboiler, allowing the characters' preoccupations with sex to be vocalized in censor-baiting, cheeky dialogue, and pushing the vague suggestions of an incestuous bond between Cecile and Raymond until it can no longer be ignored (she dances with a paramour, she dances with her father, and the identical gestures seem to indicate they're one and the same with Cecile).
But, miraculously, most of those faults eventually reveal themselves to be extraordinary attributes. It seems as though Preminger is working in Sirk territory, deliberately using the glossy, surface-concerned nature of Hollywood filmmaking in the '50s as a means of distancing himself from plot minutiae and looking at the larger picture. (I stress the "seems as though" to emphasize that one of Preminger's chief strengths as an auteur—the ability to turn any given scene, even those consisting merely of three or four characters trading banter, into fantastically complex dance-like studies of malleable moods and actions—is present in Bonjour Tristesse in spades.)
At first, one is struck by how badly Niven appears to be miscast as the quintessential bad-dad lothario. The perpetually starchy actor can't make the audience believe that he could string along the 36-21-36 likes of Mylène Demongeot any more than he can make us believe that he could dupe Kerr's impenetrable Anne. But, given deeper consideration, and taking into account Preminger's clear control over every aspect of his production and concern for the way his characters relate, it becomes all too obvious that it's precisely Niven's indolent nebbishness that keeps the women coming. Like so many a Sirk film, Bonjour Tristesse is a film about women and their wheeling dealings. Fassbinder once famously wrote that Sirk films were distinguishable from other films because "you see women thinking." One has to assume that he'd come to the same conclusion about Bonjour Tristesse: Women are constantly in charge, pulling men's strings (or sailboat towlines), and it's the men who react and not the reverse. The only incident in the film when Anne discovers that she doesn't control Raymond is devastating.
Another example of something that feels wrong initially but gradually seems like a stroke of genius is the use of black-and-white cinematography for the film's present-day sequences and blooming color for its flashbacks. Memories are typically portrayed as monochromatic in cinema, and though it initially strikes one as too recherché a gimmick (especially for a film with a magnificent set of opening titles designed by Saul Bass), it proves nothing if not modern(ist). Preminger's switch of color schemes is sneaky and telling. The black-and-white sections gracefully reflect Cecile's newfound view of the world and her life. Her sadder but wiser outlook is bleak, her rejection of the untenable moral ambivalence and relativism she embraced in the past is made one and the same with Preminger's removal of the past's variety of hues. One suspects that if Anne were narrating the film instead of Cecile, the whole picture would be in black and white.
Jean-Luc Godard, who at the time was still one of France's most notable film critics, was one of the film's early champions (he even cast Seberg the following year in his debut Breathless with the notion that she would basically be playing the same person in both films), and that's all too appropriate, because, in retrospect, Bonjour Tristesse also reveals itself to be ahead of what would become a cliché in the European art cinema of the '60s. Namely, its primary concern is the spiritual and moral decay of the idle upper class, and it came two years before Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (their very titles conflict with each other) and Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura. And if through their shared acknowledgment that even a life of immoral blitheness can still be a carnival pegs Bonjour Tristesse as a closer relation with the former film, the devastating conclusions Cecile comes to discover are every bit as haunting and life-altering as those in the formidable cinema of Antonioni. And Preminger also shares Antonioni's fascination with microscopic sociological examinations of subtly shifting group dynamics and how they can constrict people into a virtual immobility, only he allows them some measure of freedom. That makes their tragedy even greater—even without being pinned against Antonioni's ubiquitous white wall of inevitability, the inhabitants of Bonjour Tristesse still manage to back themselves into a corner of misery.