Monday, May 11, 2009

On the Riviera with Otto Preminger

With two new biographies published in the last two years and a 23-film retrospective at the Film Forum in New York in 2008, Otto Preminger has undergone a major critical re-evaluation. Of the dozen or so films of Preminger's I've seen, only two—Laura (1944) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959)—impressed me as outstanding movies, both of them highly entertaining works that tell dramatic, compelling stories performed by charismatic actors. As for the rest, nearly all struck me as uneven mixtures of strengths and flaws, often self-important "projects" whose artistic aspirations outstrip Preminger's ability to deal with their subjects.

One of Preminger's movies that was tepidly received upon its release but has recently gained a group of ardent admirers is Bonjour Tristesse (1958). In an article on the Film Forum retrospective, Nick Pinkerton of the Village Voice called the movie "one of the decade's great under appreciated films." David Thomson writes of the film's "brilliance." Andrew Sarris, in The American Cinema, calls it one of Preminger's "masterpieces." Having recently seen Bonjour Tristesse for the first time, I'm afraid I can't concur with such extravagant praise. Like most of the Preminger films I've seen, it strikes me as a mixed bag, a movie whose source, a novel about amoral Continental sensualists by the French writer Françoise Sagan, seems a strange match for Preminger's rather stern Teutonic-American sensibility.

The movie takes place during one summer on the French Riviera as Raymond (David Niven), a middle-aged businessman, his young mistress Elsa (Mylène Demongeot), and his 17-year old daughter Cécile (Jean Seberg) vacation there. These three have a bizarre relationship. The father and daughter have an extremely close—it would not be inaccurate to call it quasi-incestuous—relationship; after a while, the frequent scenes of them kissing each other on the lips become quite unsettling. Raymond and Elsa apparently occupy separate bedrooms, although this might simply be a fiction to placate the servants (or the censors). These people are decadent jet-setters: they do little else but party, booze, laze around on the beach, and gamble at the casino. Raymond is apparently a serial philanderer and Elsa a vacuous gold digger. Cécile, who has just failed her exams, is spoiled, aimless, and self-absorbed.

Into this eccentric household comes Anne (Deborah Kerr), the chic fashion-designer best friend of Cécile's mother (whom we assume to be dead). Anne soon displaces Elsa and becomes engaged to Raymond. Anne seems to be a bit of a prude who believes that Cécile has had too little parental control and attempts to set boundaries for her behavior, making her study to resit her exams and forbidding her from seeing her 25-year old boyfriend Philippe, another idle jet-setter vacationing with his mother in a nearby villa. Cécile, bridling at the restrictions placed on her and intensely jealous of Anne's relationship with her father, then concocts a plot with her boyfriend to break up the engagement. She succeeds, but with tragic results.

The movie is narrated in voice-over by Cécile and framed as a series of long flashbacks recalling the events of that summer. Scenes of the present are shot in black-and-white. These take place in Paris and generally show her carousing at discos and a night club where an almost campy theme song (was Preminger trying to replicate Laura?) is performed by Juliette Greco. The flashbacks to the Riviera are shot in color. (The photography is by the great Georges Périnal, and the Riviera scenes, with their glorious settings and brilliant Mediterranean colors, are ravishingly beautiful.) The movie ends with Cécile discussing with her father plans to return to the South in the summer with Raymond's new mistress—this time, in view of the events that happened the year before on the French Riviera, to the Italian Riviera. The final scene shows Cécile sitting dispiritedly in front of her dressing table mirror, tears streaming down her face.

Andrew Sarris, a longtime admirer of Preminger, calls the film both a comedy ("a Gallic romp"!) and "a tragedy of time and illusion." In doing so, he identifies one of the weirdest things about this movie: its mixture of incongruous tones and oddly arbitrary shifts between them. Overall, the movie—with its melancholic narration by Cécile, strong element of fatalism, and downer ending—seems to be aiming for solemn tragedy, and that is certainly the tone it ends on in that final scene of Cécile in front of the mirror.

Yet it starts off rather flippantly, with Raymond and Cécile joking around on the beach, and returns to that flippant tone from time to time. Raymond's mistress Elsa is portrayed as buffoonish, more ridiculous than comical. In a long sequence at the casino, she gets drunk and impulsively takes up with a South American playboy, amidst much banter with Cécile and Philippe, after she realizes that Raymond is about to dump her for Anne. Much of the lifestyle of the jet-setters is portrayed almost satirically. Then there is the housekeeper. She is forever claiming to be sick and sending one of her two similar-looking sisters with a similar-sounding name as a substitute, leading to a running joke about which of the sisters is working today.

Sarris makes much of Preminger's non-judgmental attitude toward the events and characters in his movies, what he calls Preminger's "ambiguity and objectivity . . . the eternal conflict, not between right and wrong, but between the right-wrong on one side and the right-wrong on the other." Yet I certainly don't get that sense from Bonjour Tristesse: too much in the film seems to contradict this view. Preminger portrays all the characters in the movie except Anne as vain, shallow, and jaded. Moreover, he seems to believe that the result of this self-centered way of life is moral and psychic stagnation for those living it, a stunting of emotions and empathy, and an existence of joyless hedonism. For those who come into contact with them, the result is tragedy. I infer from this attitude a clear sense of moral judgment.

Even the alternation between black-and-white and Technicolor seems to me to reinforce this sense of judgment. Sarris was the originator of the Preminger-as-neutral-observer concept, which, of course, to him gives Preminger a consistent cinematic point of view and therefore entitles him to auteur status. (In The American Cinema he places Preminger just below his "pantheon directors," in the same class as directors like Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, and Preston Sturges.) Sarris writes that "Bonjour Tristesse . . . is transformed by Preminger's color/black-and-white duality into a tragedy of time and illusion."

To me that's overstating the case. This duality is in one sense a strictly functional gimmick: it cues the viewer whether events are taking place in the present (black-and-white) or the past (color). But this stylistic choice also implies that Cécile's present is colorless and drained of the potential for real happiness, whereas her more innocent past was vivid and hopeful. To me the "color/black-and-white duality" indicates more than just a subjective attitude on Cécile's part; it indicates a judgment on the part of the director toward those events in the past. In its milieu and subject, Bonjour Tristesse in many ways resembles Fellini's La Dolce Vita and Antonioni's L'Avventura. Yet Antonioni and even Fellini seem detached from the decadence depicted in their movies in a way that Preminger doesn't. Far from maintaining neutrality, Preminger seems to be condemning the characters and their actions. This is the attitude of a moralist, not a disinterested observer.

Fellini's movie in particular makes an interesting comparison. Like Bonjour Tristesse, La Dolce Vita is in some ways a morality play, one in which forces of good and evil compete for control of the main character. One reason La Dolce Vita works so well is that the character of Marcello is essentially a moral cipher who avoids committing himself to either of the opposing forces competing for his soul. In Cécile, Bonjour Tristesse has no such unformed, neutral main character. Cécile seems already to have devoted herself to her sybaritic lifestyle and, despite her despair at the end, to have no intention of altering the way she lives. If she feels remorse at the fate of Anne, she nevertheless seems equally to feel relief that she can continue unchallenged her way of life and her close relationship with her father.

Cécile is, in fact, the only character in the movie who rings true, who seems to have any substance at all. Niven is very good at playing this type, but that's all his character is—a familiar type—and given the Continental setting, a curiously British one at that, a sort of dissipated version of the British "silly ass." It's hard to believe he's a rich and successful businessman, so ineffectual does he seem about anything beyond his immediate pleasure. Neither is the divine Kerr, as a woman caught up in a situation she doesn't understand, given much to create a fully defined character from. She does make a gorgeous clothes horse and is always the essence of chic appearance and civilized behavior, but little more. Adding to the vagueness of Raymond and Anne is the fact that no serious attempt is ever made to explain or make believable the unlikely emotional and physical attraction between the two. Some of the minor characters—the South American playboy, Philippe's mother (the great Martita Hunt), and especially Elsa—come awfully close to caricature.

The people in Bonjour Tristesse feel synthetic, more the product of imagination than of experience or close observation. The movie seems the creation of a filmmaker trying with only partial success to deal with intricacies of behavior and motivation that he has little understanding of. Preminger shows us people and their actions without offering any real insight into either. Some might see this as a positive thing, might call it objectivity or ambiguity, might praise it as an indicator of stylistic identity. I don't.

I wonder if it is instead the result of an intellect too perfunctory to analyze complexities of character and plot thoroughly, too casual to do more than present a surface view of people and events. Antonioni and Fellini managed to make movies about superficial people leading superficial lives that were not superficial movies. Antonioni gave his films depth with the evocative force of his astonishing images, Fellini by probing beneath the surface of his characters to suggest latent depths. In Bonjour Tristesse, though, Preminger's images seem beautiful yet empty, his characters shallow not only in nature but also in conception. For me the movie's superficiality and slickness unintentionally mirror those same traits in the characters and events it depicts. Bonjour Tristesse is not without its virtues, but there is no way I would call it a masterpiece. Like so much of Preminger's work, it is a film of major aspirations and modest accomplishments.


John said...

I always had mixed feelings about Preminger’s work, some of which I admire a lot (Laura, Anatomy of a Murder, Bunny Lake is Missing, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Fallen Angel and Angel Face). Others fall into a mixed bag category where there are many things to admire, still there seems to be something missing that makes them fall short. Here fall films like, The Man with the Golden Arm, Tell Me That You Love Me Junie Moon, River of No Returns, Exodus, In Harm’s Way, Whirlpool and Daisy Kenyon. Then there are his films that are just plain bad, Hurry Sundown, Skidoo and Such Good Friends to name a few. I have not had the opportunity to see Bonjour tristesse so I cannot comment directly, however, you review is terrific as usual. I particularly liked your comparison to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Antonioni’s L’ Adventura, the, detached objective viewpoint of the European directors vs. Preminger’s condemnation of his characters. Your last paragraph is also particularly interesting on how Fellini and Antonioni’s films deal with superficial characters and lifestyle, yet they manage to probe deep down revealing the depth of their characters while Preminger characters, and his film, both seem superficial on the surface and underneath. Finally, Jean Seberg was such a beauty. A shame her life was so short and tragic.

Ed Howard said...

That's a good, balanced review, but I'm definitely in the camp of those who view this film as one of Preminger's too-often overlooked masterpieces. It's a sublime, complex film, one in which the dance of figures within the frame defines the relationships between characters. Contrary to your reading, I think Preminger is sympathetic towards all of these characters, even Elsa, who is maybe a little "ridiculous" but is also so sweet and happy that it's hard not to like her anyway.

Preminger portrays all the characters in the movie except Anne as vain, shallow, and jaded. Moreover, he seems to believe that the result of this self-centered way of life is moral and psychic stagnation for those living it, a stunting of emotions and empathy, and an existence of joyless hedonism. ... I infer from this attitude a clear sense of moral judgment....

This really doesn't ring true to me. One effect of the sunny Technicolor for the flashback scenes is that they're fun and lively and emanate a real sense of happiness. This is certainly not "joyless hedonism." These people are genuinely happy with their lifestyles, and they enjoy being together. They're self-centered and amoral, yes, but Preminger presents them in such a way that they're also likable. Part of the tragedy of the film is the tragedy of Anne's destruction, but the other part is the loss of this idyllic existence for Cecile and Raymond.

The audience thus initially feels the intrusion of Anne as the "joyless" one, disrupting this sunny utopia, and it's only slowly that Preminger begins to introduce her point of view as well, shifting her from a villain to a sympathetic character in her own right.

Sam Juliano said...

Great stuff here, I'll be back later today.

R. D. Finch said...

Ed, thank you for your comments. I am a great one for seeing both sides of everything, and as I watched the movie I saw how others might come up with a different reading of the film based on the same elements that I focused on. Another reason I appreciate your comments is that they often give me a chance to elaborate on something that I couldn't in the text without getting too tangential.

That phrase "joyless hedonism" deserves some explanation. When I wrote it I was thinking of Cecile. The ending of the movie suggests that she will continue her lifestyle unchanged but also that she will no longer derive the pleasure from it she once did. This rings psychologically true to me because so often people will continue habitual activities long after they have ceased giving them pleasure, either because they refuse to acknowledge the pleasure is gone or because they keep hoping it will somehow return. So Cecile's future seems to hold little joy. But I also think this implies that there was something deeply flawed with her lifestyle to begin with--there was always a worm in the rose, so to speak. I guess I was thinking of joy as something deep and lasting rather than shallow and transient. And the latter is the kind of pleasure I see these people experiencing. The difference between Cecile and the others is that now she has some inkling of this, that her selfishness can harm others. The others don't seem to see this, so I suppose this sets up the possibility of some sort of alienation for the future Cecile. Perhaps it would have been clearer if I had written "transient pleasure" instead of "joyless hedonism."

As for the characters being likable or not, I find them pleasant and generally innocuous people, but I don't find the character traits of vapidity and self-absorption to the point of narcissism to be all that likable. To me these are the kind of people who view others as tools for their own ends, even if that end is simply to while away the hours having a good time.

John, thank you for your comments too. After liking "Anatomy of a Murder" so much when I finally saw it a few months ago, I was hoping this film would live up to the praise some have given it. It's certainly entertaining (and pretty) as a slick soaper, and the character of Cecile places it above the beautifully photographed teenage soaps of Delmer Daves, but for me it still "fell short" of its recently elevated reputation. I noticed that in July TCM is showing a series of films by Jean Seberg, including this one. I had always heard what a bad actress she was, but having recently seen her for the first time in this and "Breathless," I'd have to say she had something that came across on the screen, perhaps not so much acting talent as a distinct and entrancing persona.

Sam Juliano said...

R.D., you have made an excellent case here for why you are not in the 'yay' camp (you left no stone unturned in your astute analytical consideration) and you have alligned yourself with the initial reviews, which pretty much argue the same points. Despite my long familiarity and exposure to Preminger (yes those two films you do embrace there are classics, and I saw LAURA at that 2008 Film Forum retrospective your reference here!) I had not seen BONJOUR TRISTESSE until last month, at the urging of the esteemed Ed Howard, whose most fine comment preceeds mine here (along with John's fine one too) Somehow I didn't think this film would appeal to me, even though I became aware of the reputation it was building. I am now of the opinion that it's a masterpiece, and I greatly admire and appreciate the emotional center of the dazzling stylistics, the framing of characters, the use of color, flashbacks and the superb transcription of fatalism, which assists in realizing this searing tragedy. I dare say that re-viewings will enhance this position.

But you have written (typically) a superlative essay, and few can dispute what you have felt and found, even in the case of disagreement. What more can one ask?

R. D. Finch said...

Sam, as usual you are the epitome of diplomacy! I also made a point of watching this film because of Ed Howard's advocacy of it. I found things to like in it, but I suppose it's just one of those movies where the parts appeal to me more than the whole. (As I wrote, that often seems to be the case for me with Preminger.) The biggest surprise to me was how engaging Jean Seberg was. Preminger built the movie around her and her character, and I thought she came off quite well in the presence of all those old pros. If only she could have avoided those occasional lapses into that strong Midwestern accent. Thanks again, Sam, for your insightful contribution.