I have only seen Jean Seberg in one other film, Breathless (1959), which ushered in the French New Wave and captured the imagination of more than a few filmmakers in Hollywood at that time. Even more than the film itself, I was taken with the elfin style of Jean in the environs of Paris. She seems to step out from the shadow of Audrey Hepburn’s pioneering adrogynous style in order to embody the look for a new generation of audiences.
Bonjour Tristesse (1958) is based on a novel of the same name, written by Francoise Sagan only a few years earlier. The novel was an international bestseller but also a touch scandalous because it deals so openly with issues of teenage sexuality. Otto Preminger took the reins of this film version, which was also the second time he and Seberg worked together. As brilliant a director as Preminger was, he could also bully and intimidate many of the actors he worked with. Jean was no exception.
Seberg emerged victorious from the competition to play Joan of Arc in Preminger’s controversial production of Saint Joan (1957). The film was a critical failure at the time, but includes perhaps one of the most realistic and perverse death scenes on film. As Preminger filmed Joan burning at the stake, Jean took a fireball square in the face. This sort of behavior reminds me of Tippi Hedren’s near-blinding on the set of The Birds (1963). In one of the final scenes, Alfred Hitchcock allowed Hedren to battle her own way out of a room full of violent birds, who almost pecked her eyes out.
Needless to say, Preminger did not improve his behavior toward Jean for the filming of Tristesse. Despite this ugly little back story, the film is a beautiful production alternately shot in black and white and Technicolor. Contrary to convention, Preminger utilizes color for the scenes during which Jean’s character, Cecile, remembers the carefree days on the French Riviera with her playboy father, Raymond, artlessly portrayed by David Niven. Their aimless life of merry hedonism is disrupted with the arrival of Anne (Deborah Kerr), who was a friend of Cecile’s late mother. Anne’s maturity could have been a wet blanket on Tristesse‘s party atmosphere, but Kerr manages to come across as someone who has been there but grew tired of the fruitless pursuit of pleasure. As Anne, she provides an interesting contrast to the rootless Cecile and Raymond, who seem to find her stability to be something almost exotic.
The elements of Bonjour Tristesse’s plot could have easily dissipated into a soapy melodrama, but Preminger manages to turn it into complex characterizations that demand neither sympathy nor respect, but do allow some measure of understanding. Seberg’s teenage Cecile is a completely spoiled (what teenager wouldn’t be spoiled with a father like Raymond?), but allows the audience to understand why she sets out to destroy her father’s betrothal to Anne. She can’t help but behave this way, both out of a jealous possession of Raymond and for fear that their lives will irreparably become “normalized.” It is only after Anne commits suicide after seeing Raymond’s infidelity (a scenario completely contrived by Cecile), that Cecile understands the monstrosity that is her behavior. She has her father to herself again, but they both know that this sort of life will never make them happy.
Preminger’s use of black and white to portray the present is incredibly effective after the suicide of Anne. Cecile and Raymond return to their former selves, but the fun has evaporated. They are merely going through the motions of detachment, but derive no real pleasure from their lives among the international jetset. Preminger ends the film rather ambiguously, but lends their mutual disillusionment (especially that of Cecile) an indisbutable clarity.