Possibly the only New Wave movie made by a major Hollywood studio (and by one its greatest filmmakers), Otto Preminger‘s 1958 adaptation of Francoise Sagan‘s bestselling novel BONJOUR TRISTESSE (now on limited Blu-Ray release from Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) remains one of the decade’s seminal works, in addition to being the producer-director’s underrated masterpiece.
Perfectly cast, scripted, shot and scored, the movie – a cinematic bonbon with a poisonous center – was deceptively marketed as a romantic vacation movie, lensed in Technicolor and CinemaScope in the south of France. It is, in effect, a modern horror picture populated by characters more despicable than in the previous year’s Sweet Smell of Success. In the latter, the lower depths are the seedy after-hours gritty B&W streets of New York City, inhabited by sinister noirish ugly opportunists. In TRISTESSE, the monsters are beautiful, the locales joyous. It’s the biggest freak show since Tod Browning discovered the circus!
The story, briefly, revolves around single parent Raymond (David Niven) and his gorgeous child-woman teenage daughter Cecile (Jean Seberg). Niven devours young girls with an insatiable sexual fervor, much to the delight of willing accomplice Seberg. She adores her father – in fact, way too much; she chauffeurs her pater and latest twentysomething mistresses to various sumptuous assignation points, parties with them, sympathizes with the women when they are dumped and gleefully looks forward to daddy’s next conquest. During the between times, Niven and Seberg are more like lovers themselves. “You’re my girl,” Raymond emphasizes to Cecile, to which she dreamily replies, “Yes, I’m your girl!”
It is during one of these threesomes, encompassing Raymond, Cecile and scoop du jour Mylene Demongeot, that Niven encounters Anne (Deborah Kerr, who, with pinned-back hair, creepily resembles an older Seberg) – a beautiful mature grown-up he had known by way of Cecile’s mother. Raymond’s apparent decision to start acting his age explodes into a whirlwind courtship, culminating in an engagement. This sends Cecile into a demonic rage, as she considers the woman – the first serious contender for her father’s affections – deadly competition. Aligning herself with new lover Philippe (Geoffrey Horne) and Demongenot, Cecile, who sees this as a game, plots to destroy the relationship…with fatal results. The spectacular orbit of Seberg’s nuanced performance can be measured by the disintegration of her relationship with Kerr’s character – running the body language gamut from “Wow, she’s so cool!” to “I wanna kill that bitch!”
This is in sharp contrast to Cecile/Seberg’s “sisterhood” bonding with Demongeot’s Elsa (whose penchant for ludicrous outfits and nonsensical “brilliant” observations) have a refreshing reel/real effect wherein the actress is simultaneously laughing both at and with her “competitor.”
BONJOUR TRISTESSE is Greek Tragedy 101, superbly served up by Preminger. The movie is dominated by Seberg, whose look and attitude are so incredibly contemporary that you want to throttle director and rabid anti-Semite Jean-Luc Godard for taking any “reinventing” credit when he cast the soon-to-be expat in Breathless the following year. Seberg, who essentially turned her Saint Joan do into a fashion statement, rules BONJOUR TRISTESSE in spite of the otherwise plethora of excellent acting from her formidable costars. The framing bump is especially sardonic, showing that both she and her father have degenerated ever further than before, Niven being particularly evil, displaying not an iota of remorse. But it’s Seberg, trapping two potential lovers in a nightclub, causing them to become violent, that unmasks her and her parent as sexual vampires – no more so evident as when, doomed conquest realized, she uncaringly excuses herself to examine herself in the looking glass of an underground grotto Ladies Room. This is nothing short of supernatural extraordinary since, by this point, one is surprised that she’s even capable of casting a reflection.
Of course, there’s more here than simply a strange story of horrific obsessive love; it’s a relationship that mirrored the off-screen partnership between actress and director.
Otto Preminger’s legendary discovery of Seberg, an Iowan teen, to head his all-star version of Shaw’s Saint Joan, is the anti-Christ version of Selznick’s search for Scarlett O’Hara. Once he put the vulnerable girl under contract, he treated her like property – berating her in private, humiliating her in front of fellow cast members and practically holding her hostage in the lush Parisian hotel where the company was holed up. Here, after all, was an inexperienced teenager suddenly surrounded by the likes of John Gielgud, Anton Walbrook, Richard Widmark, Richard Todd, Harry Andrews, Felix Aylmer and Barry Jones. From morning till night, she was yelled at by the shrieking, beet-faced Preminger…how he made a mistake, how she’s an inadequate loser…Nicknamed Svengali, Preminger corrected his critics with a bellowing, “I try to teach her to think. Surely that is the opposite of Svengali! His trick was to insure that his victims didn’t think! I can’t get out of Miss Seberg what isn’t there!” At least he had the honesty to use the word “victim.” Widmark, who like so many before and after him, vowed to never work with Preminger again, citing his servitude on Saint Joan as the worst experience of his career recalled, “The way he treated Jean Seberg was indescribable. He criticized her constantly. He yelled at her, he insulted her, without ever letting up…We all asked him to leave her alone. Nothing did any good. Maybe it was a test of toughness. But, to me, it was sadism.”
This was an acknowledged truism of Preminger and anyone put under personal contract. Subsequent contractee Tom Tryon was so bullied under the director that he virtually fled from the industry, luckily finding fame as an author (for which, some reported, Preminger took partial credit). It got so bad for Tryon on In Harm’s Way that Kirk Douglas threatened the director if he didn’t lay off the trembling young actor. Worse, after a test screening, lead John Wayne told critics that he was pretty satisfied with result, except maybe some of the battleship model work…to which he quickly corrected himself, “But don’t tell Otto I said so.” If John Wayne was shaking in his boots, what chance did Jean Seberg have?
On BONJOUR TRISTESSE, Preminger didn’t stop with Seberg. It was his first picture under his new contract with Columbia – a dream deal if ever there was one. Columbia would put up money and handle distribution, but would have NO SAY regarding any decision, budgetary or artistic. Before the company dropped anchor on the Riviera, Otto was screaming at the studio suits, sending them running off into the night. He didn’t stop there; he rejected the first script, done by S.N. Behrman; out he went. Arthur Laurents, his replacement, would too feel the tyrant’s wrath; ditto composer Georges Auric (who, upon completion of the production, snarled “Vous etes insupportable!” to Herr Director, a verbal “Oh, snap!” if ever there was one) and cinematographer Georges Perinal, all masters of their crafts – and all of whom did exemplary work on TRISTESSE. Even easy-going, never-lose-his-temper David Niven felt the brunt of crazy Otto. Niven, who had worked with Preminger on another equally censorious project, the notorious 1953 pic The Moon is Blue (which also had a heinous father-daughter relationship, except, in this case, Niven played pimp to progeny Dawn Addams), became the human target of a lengthy tirade after leaving the location to attend a party in Deauville. Niven, when he could get a word in edgewise, reminded Preminger that he returned way before his morning call – not costing the company a second of delay time. “THAT’S BESIDE THE POINT!” screamed Otto, who felt he had to control everything (including people) on and off his shoot. By the end of production, the amiable beloved star, according to Demongeot, wanted to strangle Preminger.
Laurents, who correctly pegged the Sagan sourcework “…as a very slight, ironic story…” was worried about bucking Preminger’s aversion to subtlety. He was, chided the writer, “…a heavy-handed Austrian, and he tried to make it so melodramatic.” Laurents was therefore pleasantly surprised when Otto basically left him alone and, ultimately turned Sagan’s ultra-serious approach to relationships into a biting sarcastic one, thus making the characters way more dangerous.
During viewing of the rushes, Otto would halt the scenes – taking time to vent on everyone in the screening room, including cast, crew, projectionist and, possibly, the janitorial staff…often storming out in a rage. Only on one occasion, involving Perinal, was this justified. The movie astutely blends black and white and color by presenting the grim current footage in monochrome and the flashbacks in Technicolor. Certain filters required for the B&W scenes to be processed properly on the final imbibition release prints had been mistakenly omitted by the d.p. One can only imagine what transpired between the two men, but it’s safe to assume that it wasn’t pretty (the stress being put upon the cameraman by his director being generally cited as the cause of Perinal’s faux pas). Perinal was no slouch at arguing himself – his prime victim being mother nature. The waters of the Riviera were such that they changed colors constantly. This wreaked havoc with lighting and setups, causing the virtuoso to shout at the sky – a contagious malady which soon afflicted Preminger; if nothing else, this entertained the crew watching the duo holler epithets in at least three languages toward the spectacular azure-pigmented heavens.
The lovely French actress/comedienne Mylene Demongeot was early-on pegged as prime Preminger meat, tenderly-ripe for his ravings. The young woman, however, was of a different temperament entirely; unlike, let’s say, Faye Dunaway, who unabashedly told Preminger (at the first sign of flare-up), to go fuck himself. Demongeout actually liked Otto; more so, she respected the director as an artist and felt privileged to be working for him. It was just a matter of waiting for the trigger to be pulled, and she did that herself on one magnificently sun-drenched morning. “Mr. Preminger, I think…” she begun before being instantly cut off. “Demongeot! Don’t think! Act!” directly violating his Seberg instructions. Otto grunted, Otto seethed, Otto growled, each layer of anger adding a richer tone of crimson to his bald-pated cranium. By the time he reached cherry-red, Demongenot, who had been biting her lip to suppress the laughter, couldn’t hold it in anymore. She collapsed on the ground in hysterics, giggling so hard tears ran down her face. This, along with an occasional deadpan faux concern that he might get a heart attack, would become her response to any further Preminger confrontations.
Which brings us back to Seberg. Kerr vividly recalled consoling the young star; Saint Joan participant Gielgud had done likewise, ending with his lambasting Preminger for his treatment of the actress, whom he noted “…didn’t have an unkind bone in her body.”
But the Jean Seberg of Saint Joan was not the Jean Seberg of BONJOUR TRISTESSE. She was learning…and maturing. She wrote to a friend that, while she saw the artist in Otto Preminger, she also harbored a desire to kill him. She defiantly stated to editor Helga Cranston that “I wish he would fall in love with me. I would give him such hell!” It was during TRISTESSE that she embarked on an affair of her own, which bolstered her resistance to her boss’ puppet-master control. One memorable incident occurred when Preminger ripped into her delivery of a particular Laurents speech. “THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT!,” he shrieked after which Seberg responded in perfect imitation – right down to Otto’s thick Austrian accent, resulting in the entire company to burst into laughter and applause.
Of course, like with all bullies, once Preminger was defied, he backed off. After TRISTESSE, he brutally made public his assessment of Seberg, announcing that she had been a mistake; he followed this by selling off her contract to Columbia with the option of having the right to use her for at least one more picture (which he never exercised). “He used me like a Kleenex…” recounted Seberg in deservedly bitter retrospect. Years later, while on-location in Europe during the production of The Cardinal, Columbia and Preminger held a publicity junket after-hours party. There newbie persecution victim Tom Tryon found solace in the company of now-international star/free agent Seberg. Throughout the evening the pair chatted engagingly at the bar, laughing and having a good time…while in the background, out of the corner of his eye, Preminger watched cautiously. Finally, nearing the witching hour, the director approached the two, and in an accusatory voice, announced, “I KNOW YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT ME!” The old misery-loves-company/comparing battle scars tactics, utilized by shell-shocked warriors throughout the centuries, proved victorious. Tryon and Seberg glanced at each other, then at Preminger, and simultaneously erupted into more raucous laughter. While Seberg was now exempt from Otto’s terrorism, Tryon was another story, unquestionably to be dealt with when back before the cameras that morning. The actor would spend many years in therapy.
Music plays a crucial part in BONJOUR TRISTESSE, and Auric’s wonderful score celebrates false happiness. The jubilant cha-cha parade at night is like a merry conga line to hell. Singer-actress Juliette Greco appears as the house singer in a nightclub, expertly espousing the movie’s themes in the title tune’s lyrics (bonjour tristesse translates to hello sadness): “I’m faithful to my lover,” as Seberg coolly stares at Niven.
In one way or another all the characters in BONJOUR TRISTESSE end up as toast (and French toast at that!). It’s a shamefully perverse confection where the off-screen antics perfectly matched the on-screen histrionics…and it shows. Maybe that was part of Preminger’s genius? Who knows, who cares? All that matters is that it’s a freakin’ great movie, and one that couldn’t have gotten a better transfer than the one Twilight Time has provided. I waited for decades to see a proper CinemaScope print, and was thus delighted when, in 2003, Sony put out an anamorphic DVD, which, to be honest, was quite nice. That said, it should come as no surprise that this Blu-Ray blows the previous disc away. Crystal clear 1080p imagery provides a stunning showcase for the (literally) to-die-for the lush Technicolor Perinal visuals. The full-bodied DTS-HD MA mono audio (accessible as an IST, Isolated Score Track) adds a realistic natural element to the Orpheus carnivale atmosphere.
The B-D contains the special 1958 US theatrical trailer, which not only includes scenes from the movie, but a special mini-interview between Drew Pearson and author Sagan (it was also on the old DVD). It’s a hoot with dour Pearson, through the magic of “modern technology” (i.e. Edward R. Murrow Person-to-Person tele-interviewing) asking snarky Sagan (who was, at the time enjoying huge American acclaim; her other novel, A Certain Smile, was then in preparation by Fox) how she explains her success. “Ah dunt explain it!,” she impassively responds, failing only to add the “so fuck you!”
During the time I briefly knew Otto Preminger in 1977, I asked him about Jean Seberg, whom I adored (and still do). “What can you tell me about her?” I asked with my heart perilously dangling from my sleeve. His unexpected response was “I don’t know her,” spoken with the implied sadness of a parent who had lost all contact and understanding of a grown child who has long-left (or, in her case, escaped) the fold.
On August 30, 1979 Jean Seberg (like fellow Preminger alumnus Dorothy Dandridge before her) committed suicide. No doubt troubled for years (if not decades), her demise had many fingers pointed at Preminger for at least partial blame. Preminger was told the news while in post for would be his final movie, ironically entitled The Human Factor. It is said that all color momentarily left his face; he gasped, and muttered something about “…so full of life.” Then a small tear welled up out of the side of his right eye. This is also the final image of BONJOUR TRISTESSE.
BONJOUR TRISTESSE. Color. Letterboxed [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono audio [DTS-HD MA]. Limited Edition of 3000. Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. SRP: $29.95.
Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com].