Monday, April 26, 2010
Bonjour Tristesse (1958)
What an up-and-down experience was Bonjour Tristesse, the film based on Francoise Sagan's brief novel about a young girl with an unhealthy jealousy about her alleycat father. The Siren loved the book as a teen, but it had not aged well when she revisited it. Still, artistically the 18-year-old's debut book was more cohesive than Otto Preminger's movie.
Preminger is no great favorite of the Siren. Of what she has seen, the Siren wholeheartedly loves Laura, Angel Face and Advise and Consent; likes somewhat but does not understand the fuss about Daisy Kenyon and Anatomy of a Murder; withstood Carmen Jones only for the sake of Dandridge and Belafonte and River of No Return for Monroe and Mitchum; was bored or repelled in varying measure by The Man With the Golden Arm, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Whirlpool, The Moon Is Blue and Bunny Lake Is Missing; and loathed Saint Joan, Exodus, Hurry Sundown and The Cardinal.
Excepting the first three movies (and to a degree the second two), there is a funhouse-mirror aspect to the Siren's discussions of Preminger with just about anybody outside of James Wolcott. Where Preminger's fans see sophistication, the Siren sees coarseness and an unpardonably leaden way with jokes large or small. Where they find moral complexity, the Siren finds herself repeatedly poked in the eye with The Message. When admirers talk about the beauty of his compositions, the Siren does see the point in many instances; still, the Siren frets over lack of flow, occasional bizarre framing, particularly in the late movies, and how a scene or even a shot can wear out its welcome until pacing and its sister, suspense, clutch their hearts and keel over. Others talk of Preminger's women; the Siren thinks his movies push almost all of them into one side of a nympho/frigid label and when the film doesn't, as with the title character in Daisy Kenyon, Preminger keeps the audience so far from the character that she never seems quite real.
Now that the Siren has gotten that off her chest, and has royally pissed off all the Preminger fans (I'm so sorry Glenn, I swear I love you anyway), some good, if qualified, words for Bonjour Tristesse. Plot: Seventeen-year-old Cecile sashays through Paris in the black-and-white present, moving from flirtation to flirtation while accompanied by her aging roue of a father, Raymond (David Niven). Flashback to the Technicolor Riviera in the previous summer, where Cecile finds her idyll interrupted by Raymond's marriage proposal to the refined Anne (Deborah Kerr). Unwilling to have her frolics cut off by Anne's prim insistence on things like studying, and prompted also by sexual jealousy over her father, Cecile plots to break up the engagement, with sad results.
One pleasure that maybe should be minor for the Siren, but wasn't: It was shot in France. The locations are a little bit of heaven and Preminger does not stint in using them. The Siren found herself cheering for the characters to get into another car or take another walk, because it meant another fabulous shot of a street, or a beach, or Cecile and Raymond's villa, the most swoonworthy beach house this side of Contempt.
And then there's Jean Seberg, a limited actress whom the Siren will nonetheless watch in anything. (I mean anything. I sat through Paint Your Wagon for that woman.) She had a vividly original beauty and give Otto credit where he deserves it, he shot her like a man bewitched. She walks away from a scene and Preminger leaves the camera on her backside like he can't bear to see her go. Seberg is breathtaking, and Bonjour Tristesse gives you every angle on her that you could possibly have in 1958.
What is interesting about Seberg in this film is the way she handles her obvious insecurities as an actress. Most inexperienced and/or nervous actresses (think early Ava Gardner or Linda Darnell in most things) will concentrate on getting the line readings just right and neglect the whole-body approach you get with someone truly in possession of her craft. Seberg does the opposite. Her movements in Bonjour Tristesse are perfection, or close--whether she is planting a kiss on the boy she's chosen to take her virginity, reaching her arms out to her father on a dance floor, chucking a picture into a drawer in a fit of temper or just getting ice cream out of the icebox, Seberg's every bit of body language plays as truth. But--her voice. Seberg started with a handicap, a thin voice further marred by a field-flat Midwestern accent, but she makes it worse with intonations that suggest she's reciting in class rather than expressing any kind of emotion. The lines all sound the same--a world-weary remark to a suitor gets the same type of expression she gives to joking with her father or plotting Anne's downfall. In Breathless, Godard took Seberg's affectless delivery and married it to a character for whom it made perfect sense. No such luck in Bonjour Tristesse.
The vocal problem is particularly acute because Seberg narrates large chunks of the movie. When we are flashing back to the Riviera summer, she tells us how very happy they were, and how they didn't see anything coming, and now she wonders if it all could have been prevented. And when we move from the Riviera back to Paris, Seberg tells us how very very triste everything is, and where did it all go wrong, and now she and her father are just pretending to be happy. And she also has occasional thinking-out-loud-on-the-soundtrack narration, like where she's chasing after someone and thinking "should I tell her? no, why should I tell her! then again..." All right, I am caricaturing, but only slightly. The narration is dull, at times risible, at least 95% unnecessary, and it's an open question as to whether Danielle Darrieux or Barbara Stanwyck at the height of their powers could have made these interjections work. Seberg, in only her second movie, didn't have a prayer.
Bonjour Tristesse gets a big boost from David Niven in a role that hit uncomfortably close to his real-life reputation. The Siren loved how Niven shows the slight seediness of Raymond's charm, the character's calculation and essential callousness. And Niven gives Raymond just the right amount of flirtatiousness with Cecile--enough to suggest the man is sublimating something by going with his younger girlfriends, but not enough to be repulsive. Deborah Kerr starts off low-key but ends up heartbreaking as Anne, who is rendered a lot less comprehensible and substantive than in the book.
Many of the factors that put the Siren off Preminger are present, though. Attempts at banter among these idle, intelligent people are remarkably slow and unfunny and an extended joke about three maids with similar names is DOA. There was an improbable dance on the docks that reminded the Siren of much that she hated about Carmen Jones. The way Preminger splits up focus in widescreen can strike the Siren as crude, attention jerked hither and yon rather than smoothly drawn from one spot to another. During several conversations there was an odd motif of chopping off the tallest actor at the crown of the head, but that was nothing compared to Kerr and Niven's first big love scene, played in a convertible. This was shot through the windshield in a way that planted the rearview mirror bang in the middle of Kerr's forehead. The Siren simply cannot fathom the reason for this, unless Kerr had somehow incensed her director, a possibility that should probably never be discounted with Preminger.
But the shots that the Siren is complaining about are layered between others of great beauty; in particular the black-and-white scenes are put together with impeccable visual grace. The Siren was delighted with the long swoops of the cars around the Paris streets and Seberg's eyes over her dance-partner's shoulder.
Preminger has a wintry approach to love; romance is usually a distant bat-squeak, if it's there at all. Some directors who don't believe in love do believe in sex, and plenty of it, but despite his vaunted frankness Preminger usually isn't that sexy, either, his camera hanging back as if to say, "Now, if you will, please observe this procedure." But Preminger's attitude is not that far from Sagan's, and Bonjour Tristesse has some heat. The sensuality is almost entirely reserved for Seberg and her young men, with an occasional fatherly embrace from Niven that seems to linger just a hair too long.
Kerr, on the other hand, has her hair scraped tightly off her face, wears clothes that usually don't flatter her and is placed in two-shots with Seberg that emphasize her age (all of 37) in a way that borders on the cruel. Anne's intelligence and intrinsic worth as a person, very much a factor in the novel, are scaled back in the movie. When she reminds Cecile that a seaside tryst "can end up in the hospital" (a pretty goddamn reasonable reminder for a teenager even now) she just sounds prissy. The Siren forgave all this, though, when she saw the final sequences.
Lured by Cecile, Anne stumbles upon Raymond as he tries to lure back his much-younger former flame. As she listens to the man she had planned to marry mocking her age, her looks and even her love, Preminger keeps the camera on Kerr's face, and it's a brilliant choice. You watch this woman's agony grow and grow until you can't bear it any more than she can, and she runs off. It's so beautifully played by Kerr that in no way do you question Anne's suicide later, despite her eminent common sense to that point--what else do you do with that kind of betrayal?
And even more than that, the Siren loved Cecile and Raymond's car ride after he gets the inevitable phone call. They jump into his convertible and wind down the road, and for once Preminger's buildup isn't too long--the car stops in front of the roadblock at exactly the right moment, and its lurch throws you back even though you already know what you're going to see.
Then...back to Paris, and more narration. Lots and lots of narration. But it does build to a superb shot of Seberg, taking off her makeup and staring into the mirror, facing a future already bleak and loveless at the ripe old age of seventeen. That shot, and Kerr's last sequence a few moments earlier, make up for a great deal, even if they don't change the Siren's overall view on Preminger.