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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Melodrama > Character Study > New Wave > Bonjour Tristesse (1958/Sony/Columbia/Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-ray)

Bonjour Tristesse (1958/Sony/Columbia/Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-ray)


Picture: A-     Sound: B+     Extras: C     Film: A-



PLEASE NOTE:  This Blu-ray is limited to 3,000 copies and is available exclusively at the Screen Archives website which can be reached at the link at the end of this review



Throughout its life, Otto Preminger's 1958 film Bonjour Tristesse has been touted as the progenitor of many a new waves.  In the late '50s and early '60s, Godard and his Cashier du Cinema cohort openly heralded the film as a signal influence, while critics from Andrew Sarris to Dave Kehr have drawn connections from the film to a number of milestone achievements in European filmmaking.  In an essay accompanying Twilight Time's excellent limited edition Blu-Ray package of the film, which was released in November, Julie Kirgo writes that Bonjour Tristesse's "coolly objective view of the foibles of the rich and neurotic would have its effect on films as different as Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita and Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura."


While these assessments are accurate - Breathless, for example, is a direct descendant of Bonjour Tristesse (in fact, Godard has said his film could easily have begun from the last shot of Preminger's) – they are incomplete.  Preminger's film might have been the tidal force that kicked up a number of European new waves, but it also, and perhaps more importantly, churned up the framework of cinema modernism.


Based on a surprise bestseller by Françoise Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse is a film long on melodrama – a bourgeois, emotionally incestuous love parallelogram between 17-year-old Cecile (Jean Seberg), her widower father, Raymond (David Niven), his of-the-moment young playmate Elsa (Mylène Demongeot), and an old family friend, fashion designer Anne (Deborah Kerr) that plays out on the French Riviera "last summer.”  Yet Preminger doesn't languish in the superficiality of a rich-behaving-badly plot.  Instead he luxuriates in the formal possibilities this otherwise trite narrative offers and builds his film around them.


Most overtly, Preminger jumps between black-and-white and color, present and past, to drive home the consequences of youthful (and privileged) disregard.  The first time this transition occurs, it's a bit like going to Oz.  The film opens in the black-and-white present, but as Cecile narrates the movie-long flashback about last summer's events, things dissolve into sensuous Technicolor.  As captured by cinematographer Georges Périnal, the blazing color of the French Riviera – and Cecile's innocence – is hyper-exotic.  The blue of the Mediterranean, the greens and yellows of clothing, even the red of sunburn pops with a supernatural luminescence.  When we're wrenched back into the present, the black-and-white (itself deep and sumptuous, not content to take a backseat to color) accentuates the pallor of Cecile’s nascent adulthood.


As fusty and obvious as this device feels today, could anything be more self-reflexive?  We're never lulled into a passive state of viewership because Preminger never allows us to ignore the artificiality of what we're watching.  Cinema is pieces and cuts and film stocks and shots and dissolves that are smashed together to forge a false reality, as false and duplicitous as the characters we're watching.  Yet in the end, Bonjour Tristesse is more about film structure than Sirk-on-the-Mediterranean.  Watching it now is like watching a prototype of Contempt or Pierrot le fou or Last Year at Marienbad or Red Desert or exploding out of Hollywood's sputtering dream factory.


Like the modernist cinema it would inspire, Bonjour Tristesse is similarly imbued with a sense of detachment – from society, convention, and expectation – thanks to Preminger's compositional choices.  Rather than placating middlebrow audiences by simply connecting them to sweeping CinemaScope vistas, Preminger uses the very widescreen as a means of communicating alienation – physically and emotionally.  At the start of the film, Cecile and Raymond are almost one body; when Anne arrives and Raymond's affections begin to turn, Cecile is subtly pushed further and further aside.  As this happens, Preminger begins internalizing the film and deploying the close-up to devastating effect.  Reactions become singular, rather than group, experiences, with actors responding to loose talk, innuendo, and hegemonic threats in utter solitude within an unforgivingly epic frame.  The payoff – if it's possible to find pleasure in unmitigated cruelty – is Anne's discovery of Raymond and Elsa at the film's climax (played with wrenching honesty by Kerr) and the final shot of Cecile staring into a mirror, coating her face in crème, and crying as the consequences of last summer wash over her (and Seberg saves her capsizing career).


By the end, Preminger has moved Bonjour Tristesse completely inward.  The film has always been interior – Cecile's is telling it through her point of view – but now we realize we have no way into the film other than through her, and we'll only get what she'll allow us to have.  It would be noir if Cecile weren't so icy and clinical – and modern.  Alexander Sesonske writes in the essay accompanying Criterion's release of that Fellini’s film "announces in its first frame that modernism has reached the cinema.”  With all due respect, I would argue it’s the last frames of Bonjour Tristesse – meticulously deliberate in its self-reflexivity, ruthlessly exquisite in its disenchantment with society –that herald the arrival of modernism in cinema.


Twilight Time's Blu-Ray release of Bonjour Tristesse might not expand the conversation about the film – the disc is limited to 3,000 units.  But it certainly does the film justice, from a presentation standpoint if not in terms of extras.


Sony released an incomparable DCP restoration of Bonjour Tristesse in early 2012, and this Blu-Ray captures its beauty.  The film, simply, looks brilliant.  Its Technicolor sections are warm and glorious, while the black-and-white is inky and atmospheric in this amazing 1080p digital High Definition presentation.  There's no discernible grain, yet the restoration and Blu-Ray don't lose the film quality of the source.  The disc's DTS-HD MA 1.0 Mono lossless audio won't blow the roof off your home theater, but then again it's not supposed to.  The sound is crisp and clean, with clear dialogue and a rich soundtrack.  Clinking glasses, lapping waves, and creaking furniture never compete with raucous parties, crowded clubs, and intimate moments, or vice versa, while Georges Auric’s score never overwhelms the diegesis.


Extras-wise, the disc features Auric's score as an isolated track (a standard on Twilight Time releases), an awkward domestic trailer featuring footage from the film and a weird interview with author Françoise Sagan, and liner notes from Julie Kirgo.  Not much, but it's one special feature more than many Twilight Time releases.


Still, Bonjour Tristesse almost begs for something more – perhaps not a Criterion treatment, but certainly something to speak to it's historical importance.  That comes across in Kirgo's essay, but a short documentary or a more robust booklet would have been a nice addition.  Ultimately, though, it's hard to argue with this release when a film this compelling is presented so beautifully.



As noted above, Bonjour Tristesse can be ordered while supplies last at:





-   Dante A. Ciampaglia


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