This Park Circus rerelease of Otto Preminger’s 1958 classic Bonjour Tristesse, based on the Françoise Saigon novella and starring Deborah Kerr, David Niven and Jean Seberg, feels particularly timely. The frivolity of rich Europeans who party all night, drink champagne for breakfast and swap partners with the changing seasons is laid bare, their pampered existence exposed as ultimately hollow. Seventeen-year-old Cécile (Seberg) is holidaying with her attractive widowed father Raymond (Niven) and his lover Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) on the French Riveria. They sunbathe and swim by day and visit various bars, clubs and casinos by night.
Cécile and Raymond clearly adore one another and revel in their shared amorality. When Anne, a friend of Cécile’s late mother, arrives she throws our heroine and her father’s world into disarray. Anne immediately sets herself apart from Raymond’s other girlfriends. She is older than him, cultured, principled and runs her own business. She exerts a stabilising influence on Raymond who is soon besotted and ditzy Elsa is swiftly dispatched. But when they announce their engagement Cécile is thrown into a quandary, fearing that Anne will stop her fun and claim all her father’s time and affection. Fuming at suddenly being made to revise for exams, Cécile starts plotting her revenge with terrible consequences.
Preminger perfectly balances style with substance. The opening shots of Bonjour Tristesse, set in Paris, are in black and white as Cécile mournfully reflects on the events of the past summer that ended in tragedy. Like Tom and Daisy in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Cécile and her father Raymond are moneyed, careless people and Preminger reflects their decadent lifestyle with quick cuts and fast edits as they travel between bar, club and casino. When we flashback to their holiday by the sea, the scenes are sumptuously shot in the bright colours of high summer.
Preminger exploits his fine cast to the full with numerous shots of their bodies, clad in dashing swimsuits, classy dresses or tuxedos, and lingering close-ups during moments of vulnerability. Throughout, Seberg’s gamine sexuality is lovingly contrasted with Kerr’s wholesome beauty. In the final shots of Bonjour Tristesse, back in Paris where it all began, we can see that Cécile is now tired of the excesses she once embraced. The endless round of parties has become monotonous, literally bleached of colour, and the men she dates, like her father’s blonde girlfriends, are difficult to tell apart. This perfectly-pitched meditation on dissolute lives and the transience of youth is a joy to revisit and thoroughly recommended for new audiences.