Tuesday, November 11, 2008

You Otto See It: Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Bonjour Tristesse (1958) is my new obsession. In a nutshell, the story is about bored, rich people who play with other people's lives to pass the time. It reminded me a lot of the film My Man Godfrey. In Bonjour Tristesse, 17-year old Cecile (Jean Seberg) is staying with her father, Raymond (David Niven), at their vacation home on the French Riviera. He is openly having an affair with a French woman named Elsa (Mylene Demongeot), that is until Cecile's godmother, Anne (Deborah Kerr), comes to stay and he shifts his focus. Anne gets in the way of Cecile's two major relationships. The tight yet aloof bond with her father and the burgeoning romance with young law student, Philippe (Geoffrey Horne).

This film is probably the best example of Otto Preminger's keen attention to the details. If you don't pay close attention, you'll miss many important subtleties that are woven into the fabric of the story. And since I am all about the details, I thought I would dissect 3 short scenes from the film to show how Preminger used these subtleties to reveal elements of the character's personal dilemmas.

1) Champagne Scene

Before heading to a casino for a night of fun, the primary characters, all glammed up, drink some champagne. Distracted by their own charms, not one of them notices that the maid is serving herself very generous portions of champagne, which she guzzles down greedily as the party laughs away at their own jokes. It's an interesting commentary at the obliviousness of the upper class (and its moochers) to the state of the lower class. This is an ongoing theme throughout the movie.

2) The Shoulder Kiss Scene

All summer long, Cecile and Philippe frolick around in their bathing suits worshipping the sun, the ocean and each other. The lack of parental supervision has put their courtship into overdrive. That is, until Anne, Cecile's father's fiancee, catches them in a passionate embrace. Anne chastises them, demanding that they no longer see each other. Philippe leaves, but not before kissing Cecile on the shoulder. Enjoying the kiss, Cecile kisses that exact same spot on her shoulder. This is really the first instance we Cecile acknowledging some kind of real connection with someone other than her father. These people are to some extent numb and when one actually feels something real they are either excited or scared by it.

3) Sleep or Sex? Scene

Preminger got away with murder here. Anne and Raymond are engaged. Only a serious commitment from Raymond would allow for Anne to ignore her prudish nature and give into their mutual passion.

Raymond: Oh. Pig, pig, pig. I ate like a pig.
Anne: Sleepy?
Raymond: In a way.
Anne: [pause] No, I have to work.

Basically, Raymond just gave her an opportunity to sleep with him and she just turned it down. All of this in front of Raymond's daughter Cecile. It shows how wrecklessly Raymond treats sex and how this will affect not only Cecile but also Anne.

You definitely Otto see this film. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that because there is so much in this film to take in, that I think you Otto see it twice! If anything, watch it for Saul Bass' beautiful title sequences. They are worth it on their own.


  1. Hi Raquelle,

    Who is that maid sneaking a few gulps of champage? Is that Albertine or Leontine?

    Anyway, I watched this movie a second time over the weekend, and I still missed that brief scene.

    I love your interpretation of the scene where Cecile kisses her own shoulder following the embrace with Philippe.

    Bonjour Tristesse is a real find! I also wish I had a copy of the title song sung at the beginning of the movie while Jean Seberg is dancing and remembering.

  2. Hi there, I've come over via Asleep in New York's journal links. I just wanted to say how much I've been enjoying the "you Otto see it" series of posts. I've seen most of his early films, but not these later ones, and I will definitely be seeking them out after reading your reviews.

  3. Hey Kevin,

    A few! You Otto see that scene again. She gulps down a whole lot. I hope they used apple juice on the set!

    Well if you are ever online and want to hear the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjNkrlLiJQg


  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Raquel,
    Ahh! Wonderful! I want to see this film so badly I will have to sneak it in before The Cardinal.

    Can one say that this movie is some sort of forerunner to "la nouvelle vague" in France that is said to have started with Goddard's À bout de souffle 1960? I se similarities in the aesthetics.

    Et, n'oblie pas, les details est vraiment les epices de la vie!

  6. Well, I guess I'll have to rent this one!

  7. DKoren - Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed my Otto series. Let me know when you next see one of his films. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    Jonas - I would recommend it before Bonjour Tristesse. I hope it's available in Europe. Ooh I don't know what la nouvelle vague is but it sounds tres cool.

    Sarah - I think you'd enjoy it!

  8. Have you read the book by Francoise Sagan?

    I started it a few years ago, but got bored with it, which makes perfect sense, really: I only bought it because a smart writer from California told me 'my style of prose, and the clever way I twist phrases' reminded him of Sagan.

    I guess that means I'm pretty boring too.

    I've always avoided this film in hopes of finishing the book.

    I'm excited for you and Kevin today; I hope the lecture goes wonderfully! :)

  9. P.S. As mentioned, I've had this darn book since 2005, and I remember liking the cover (also with a teardrop falling, but the book had no eyes...), and just now that I've taken it down from the shelve to thumb through, to see if I can find any reference to the lovely image of one kissing their own shoulder (I do that all the time...I thought it was normal), I'm finally and fully appreciating your new header. :)

    Great, sad stuff.

  10. Ginger, did it ever cross your mind that this smart writer actually was making a pass at you by saying all that :))

  11. Wonderful, simply wonderful Raquel!
    I happen to love movies that mix black and white and color. Here it's done to perfection. Especially as the color come in the first time, the b/w lingers and color is partially mixed in just like a memory that slowly materializes. Exquisite!

    The Champagne is not real, it can't be since there's no bubbles in any glass at any time. Check it out!
    This doesn't take the strength out of the maid's gulping-scene anyway.
    The way she lands that pint is really interesting. She is in the foreground doing her thing openly, still it's hard to notice what she's doing because of all the chatter. She is a maid and as such unimportant and shouldn't be noticed because of her class and status, so it doesen't matter what she's doing. I think Preminger says a lot with his treatment of the maid. Another thing is the constant change of maids, they all look alike... The working class is highly exchangable etc... Brilliantly told in a very suble way.

    The Shoulder Kiss and Sex or Sleep, Brilliant! I agree with your analysis on both these.

    There's another scene I found quite symbolic. The very last moment of the film when Cecile is putting cream on her face. I see a clown putting on the mask getting ready to play her role for the thousandth time. Obvious perhaps but very beautiful.

    The settings, costumes and everything about this film is very aesthetic. Givency really could dress a dame!
    The trio of David Niven, Jean Seberg and Deborah Kerr is magnificent, the suporting cast is of somewhat lesser quality I think.

    Thank you Raquel for these 90 minutes of pure cinematic pleasure!

  12. Jonas,

    I'm so glad that you watched this film and came back to tell me your thoughts on it. I really do appreciate it.

    You are so right. Those maids were interchangeable as far as the upper class were concerned.

    You know I didn't know what to make of the Cecile/cold cream scene. I like your point. It reminds me of Bette Davis in All About Eve stripping off her stage makeup with tons of cold cream. Both characters were performing.

    I'm glad to see someone else enjoy this film as much as I did.


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