In early 1956 Jean Seberg was a small-town girl from Marshalltown, Iowa whose only acting experience was a single season of summer stock. By October of that year, she was on her way to stardom, chosen from 18,000 aspirants by director Otto Preminger for the lead in his new film Saint Joan. Dubbed a “Pygmalion experiment” by the press, it was not well received and much of the critical blame for its failure was placed on Seberg. Still, Preminger saw something in her worth cultivating, and he cast her again as the lead in his next film, 1958’s Bonjour Tristesse. “I prefer to take the risk,” he said at the time. Perhaps without realizing it, so did Seberg.
Based on the bestselling novel by Francoise Sagan, published when the author was just eighteen herself, Bonjour Tristesse tells the story of Cécile, a feckless young woman whose black-and-white life in Paris is a roundelay of parties, restaurants, and nightclubs; her playboy father Raymond (an expertly stagnant David Niven, already riffing on his caddish onscreen persona five years before The Pink Panther) is also in attendance, usually with a new young lovely on his arm. But while she’s dancing with this week’s suitor, Cécile makes eye contact with the camera and we’re whisked away in her memory to the fateful summer before on the French Riviera, blooming in vibrant Technicolor. The setting makes it sound like ideal seasonal viewing, and in many ways it is – if the person you’d most like to get away from is yourself.
Cécile and Raymond have come to this idyllic paradise for what’s clearly a habitual escapade for them, with Raymond bringing along his latest squeeze, the effervescent but intellectually dim Elsa (Mylène Demongeot). Cécile and Raymond are sickeningly sweet in their vaudevillian routine of domesticity, wearing the same unbuttoned blue shirt over their swimsuits and greeting each other and everyone in the house with a cheery “Good morning.” It’s worn thin with the rotation of female maids subject to Raymond’s sexual harassments, and it’s beginning to wear thin for seventeen-year-old Cécile, though she’s not yet aware of it. The sun may be shining but the familial relations are about to get as rocky as the beach’s terrain.
In a move that feels unusual for the time, and probably still would be today, we are never told how long Cécile and her father have been alone together or how it happened. No effort is made to psychologize the mother’s absence; Sagan – and by extension Preminger – prefers to let Cécile and Raymond’s behavior speak for itself. And their behavior is often abominable, particularly once Anne (the ever elegant Deborah Kerr), an old friend of Cécile’s mother, arrives.
Divorcée Anne is more patrician than her hosts, a well-educated working woman who may prove to be a good influence on Cécile if she lets her. “I cannot be casual,” she announces when Raymond puts his inevitable moves on her. Soon Raymond has given Elsa the boot and announces his engagement to Anne. Cécile, forced to consider herself through Anne’s eyes and not entirely liking what she sees, resolves to break them up. Inevitable tragedy ensues, with Cécile getting what she wants only to realize it no longer means anything to her. Back in the monochrome present, she finally understands the limbo she and her father have damned themselves to live in, desperately clinging to their cycle of destruction because neither can bear to be the one to spoil the fun with the true intimacy of knowing oneself.
In some ways, it makes sense that Seberg and Preminger’s second (and final) collaboration would be such a twisted father-daughter tale, given their history. Whether he intended it or not, Preminger made one of the great films about internalized misogyny with Bonjour Tristesse, all while being an undeniable misogynist himself. His onset behavior could be tyrannical and, as co-star Mylène Demongeot later recalled, Seberg often bore the brunt of it: “[W]hen we all arrived on the set of Bonjour Tristesse she carried on her shoulders the weight of guilt… Jean was scared of him so he would take advantage and eventually became very mean to her.” When the film received a cool response as well (the BFI’s Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that Seberg “speaks rather than acts her lines”), it nearly ended her career.
It was the French film industry that would give her a second onscreen life. Seberg met her first husband François Moreuil while filming Bonjour Tristesse and stayed on in the country after it wrapped. By 1960, Jean-Luc Godard had cast her in her iconic Breathless role which he saw as a natural continuation of Cécile’s destiny. “I could have taken the last shot of Preminger’s film and started after dissolving to a title: ‘Three years later,’” he said. Still, Seberg’s end would be a sad one; relentlessly hounded by COINTELPRO for her involvement with the Black Panther Party, she turned to drink and was dead by forty. Watching Bonjour Tristesse now, it’s hard to feel like she ever came out from under the cloud of its creation. It makes for a great performance, but possibly at the expense of a great life.
“Bonjour Tristesse” is available for digital rental or purchase.