Twilight Time // 1958 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 22nd, 2012
"Lives of the rich and reckless"
There are many plateaus on the long climb from childhood to adulthood. Though we're all different inside, many of us travel through the same stages in our development into adults. One of the more common of these stages is the disaffected teenager. Many of us go through a few years where we feel out of step, both with the adult world, our peers, and even ourselves. Feeling grown up enough to make decisions for ourselves, but not yet grown up enough for all the responsibilities of adulthood like mortgages and careers, teenagers especially suffer from a certain alienation. Though many films have documented the teenage mindset, from party hearty excess to the pangs of first love, few films have attempted to catch the disaffected youth with as much tenderness and pathos as Bonjour Tristesse. Now fans of the film can own the limited edition Bonjour Tristesse (Blu-ray), which is stunning in its presentation even if it isn't copious in its extras.
Cecil (Jean Seberg, Breathless) is 17, the spoiled daughter of a rich playboy father (David Niven, The Guns of Navarone). She's a total daddy's girl, but when a friend (Deborah Kerr, Black Narcissus) of her father's dead wife shows up to their villa, Cecile conspires to keep her from changing their unfettered way of life.
Jean Seberg will forever be, at least to my mind, the star of Godard's first feature Breathless. She brought to that role such a spirit, so indomitable and yet with such vulnerability that her image lives on many years after her tragic early death (at 40!). However, her fated appearance in that film almost didn't happen. Seberg was chosen by director Otto Preminger to play his Joan of Arc, and that film was such a notorious flop that no one expected its star to work again. However, as a testament to his iconoclasm, Preminger cast Seberg again in Bonjour Tristesse, a role that famously caught Godard's eye.
Preminger was in a weird position as well when he made Bonjour Tristesse. Though his early career had been in theater, he's made a name for himself at 20th Century Fox with films like Laura. However, as his career rose in the 1950s, he increasingly directed hard-hitting films that didn't quite fit the Hollywood mold. Whether it was his two black-cast musicals (Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess), frank discussion of rape and murder (Anatomy of a Murder), or adaptation of critically acclaimed novels (Exodus), Preminger danced to his own tune. Bonjour Tristesse emerged from this period, a surprisingly cosmopolitan film that cast an American in the lead with British co-stars acting in a film that's based on a French bestseller.
The result is a film that captures the pathos of impending adulthood like few others. Viewers simultaneously revel in Cecile and her father's fast-and-loose lifestyle (presented so well by Preminger), while knowing that such a lifestyle isn't healthy for them in the long run. We want to see Cecile mature and accept her father's relationship with Anne, even if that means settling down. Preminger's genius is in shaping our desires to Cecile's; we understand the attraction of an ordered adulthood even as we resist it for the beautiful decadence of the Riviera lifestyle.
It absolutely helps, of course, that Preminger is at the top of his game visually. The lifestyle that Cecile and her father enjoy is glittering and perfect, even as her voiceover tells us it's sometimes emotionally empty as well. Again I have to marvel at just how cosmopolitan the film is, with an Austro-Hungarian director shooting in France as well as England (studio shooting at Shepperton), creating a world that's beautiful to behold. Preminger is of course aided by his stars as well. Seberg was (perhaps unfairly) drubbed for her role as Joan of Arc, surely one of the most difficult roles in film to attempt, given the success of Carl Dreyer's immortalization of Edie Falco in his Passions of Joan of Arc. Here, however, she is perfect as the young ingénue torn between the joys of adolescence and the price of adulthood. Deborah Kerr brings the same kind of subdued but potent sexuality she showed in Black Narcissus, and David Niven is surprising in a turn as the decadent Raymond, doting on his daughter while above it all.
This Blu-ray release, limited to 3,000 copies, is a triumph. The 2.35:1 AVC-encoded image is amazing. The film was shot on Technicolor stock in color and black-and-white, and the resultant image is almost too perfect in some scenes. The black-and-white moments are especially pleasing, with a solid filmlike appearance and no print damage to speak of. The color sections have that vivid quality that Technicolor was famous for, and the transfer here is especially careful to preserve appropriate color correction. The film's audio is presented in a DTS-HD 1.0 mono track that's perfectly appropriate to the period. Dialogue is clean and clear, and the film's score is well-mixed.
The set includes an isolated score track and the film's trailer. Bonjour Tristesse was released in a time before the homogenization of movie trailers, so this one features a strange interview with the novel's author intercut with scenes from the film. A booklet is also included, featuring some shots from the production and an article by Julie Kirgo on the film.
One longs for a lavish, Criterion-style release for this cinematic treasure along the lines of their exquisite Anatomy of a Murder. Until then, of course, this Blu-ray set is fine, but fans who don't snap up one of these 3,000 Blu-rays will be sorely disappointed because this is the best the film is likely to look on home video. As for the film itself, contemporary viewers may be put off by some of Preminger's stylistic flourishes, like the interspersed scenes in black-and-white, along with the overall "existential" feel of the film.
Bonjour Tristesse is a classic bit of cinema from one of the medium's masters. Jean Seberg is charming, and the supporting cast are rock solid in this tale of incipient adulthood. Fans of the film should snap up Bonjour Tristesse (Blu-ray) for the excellent audiovisual presentation, even though they might desire more extras.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Twilight Time
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Isolated Score