Otto Preminger was best known for his taboo shattering work in the 1950s. With films like The Man With the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder, he was able to bring unspoken societal ills into the public conversation. The former film was among the first Hollywood production to deal with heroin use, and the latter among the first to pointedly deal with rape. However, Preminger wasn't always beating America over the head with its own shortcomings, sometimes he made smaller pictures, but they were no less affecting. 1958's Bonjour Tristesse is just such a film.
We begin the film in a gloriously sepia toned present tense wraparound in which Jean Seberg as the 17 year old mischievous Cecile remembers the glory days of a summer past. We encounter Cecile at the French summer home she shares with her father, Raymond (played by the debonair yet unusually loose David Niven) and his current fling, Elsa (Mylene Demongeot, in a very spirited turn). Just as Raymond and his perhaps a bit too familiar daughter are getting into the swing of having no commitments and living purely for the moment, a small snag appears in their quest for freedom in the form of Raymond's "friend", Anne, played by Deborah Kerr. When Anne's presence begins to put a damper on the carefree life to which Cecile has become accustomed by introducing the most marginal of structure, Cecile decides it's time to get her our of the picture. She hatches a plan so devious that it made me wince a little, but it makes for marvelous drama and goes to show how effortless teenaged tragedy can be.
This film, even though it features two big actors in David Niven and Deborah Kerr, belongs to Jean Seberg. Her portrayal of a girl on the cusp of womanhood trying to ascertain the level of power she wields, is incredible. Rather than attacking society as a whole in one broad stroke like in the above mentioned films, Preminger instead attacks the decay of the nuclear family, and the decay of basic morality without appearing prudish or reactionary. A difficult feat indeed. Seberg's Cecile just old enough to get in trouble, but a wee bit too young to fully comprehend the ramifications of her childish actions, and she's not the only one who pays the price. While her performance in the impeccably colored flashback scenes is electric, it is the present tense scenes in the dirty monochrome that really show her power as an actress.
Preminger's eye for widescreen photography, even in these early years after its introduction, is incredible. This is one of the best looking 50's widescreen films, and Preminger's use of the CinemaScope frame is a thing of beauty. Add to that the evocative but not intrusive score from Georges Auric (The Wages of Fear, Rififi, and many more) does an amazing job of setting the tone without telegraphing to the viewer instructions on how he/she should feel. While this is nowhere near my favorite of Preminger's films, I have a soft spot for Laura, it is definitely a much better experience than I was expecting, and one I'll be sharing as soon as possible.
As usual, Twilight Time comes to the plate and knocks it out of the park. The transfer on Bonjour Tristesse is nothing short of beautiful, especially the monochrome framing sequences, These scenes are bursting with fine detail and natural looking film grain which helps to convey the nostalgic mood for which Preminger was aiming. Conversely, the bright and dynamic color sequences manage to convey the sense of freedom and joy in which Cecile so dearly wanted to stay entrenched. The audio track is very clean, and the dialogue and music sound lovely, even in the original mono track. In short, another A+ specimen from Twilight Time.
The extras are typically thin on this release, but what is here is quite good. First there is an original domestic trailer for the film which plays a bit like a faux newscast including an interview with Francoise Sagan, the young authoress of the book on which the film was based. Secondly, and more impressive, is the booklet with liner notes from Julie Kirgo. I don't know how she does it, but Kirgo manages to cover a lot of ground in only six pages, and she does it gracefully. I'm a booklet fan, and Twilight Time consistently delivers some of the best in the business.
Bonjour Tristesse was nowhere on my radar before this Blu-ray was announced, but I'm a very happy guy to now have this in my collection. Only one film has surprised me more from Twilight Time, and that was the marvelous Rapture, but this one is definitely number two for TT discoveries! Highly recommended.