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Bonjour Tristesse

Man, Jean Seberg ruined this movie for me. I don't know, maybe it's just me, but her every movement felt fabricated and terribly unnatural. I felt as if she hadn't played a character but played an actor playing a character instead, if I'm making any sense at all. She didn't embrace her character, she didn't become her; instead she played a rigid, stiff somebody who tried to strike the right chord by woodenly reciting her lines but who was irremediably out of tune. Gosh, it was awful. I felt painfully aware of her forced line delivery, her fake inflection, her bogus smile and the fact that she completely undermined the authenticity of this movie. And Bonjour Tristesse is the kind of movie that would have badly needed it. It's infuriating. The concept, the setting, Otto Preminger's surehanded direction, David Niven... this could have been ace without her. Well, adieu tristesse, I guess.

Bonjour Tristesse

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The house was not named Bonjour Tristesse by the architect, but by strangers who painted these words on the clearly visible gable of the corner house in 1984 before the scaffolding was removed. The name painted on the wall is reminiscent of the novel Bonjour tristesse (1954) and its film adaptation of the same name from 1958.

The narrator of Bonjour Tristesse is Cécile, a semi-precocious seventeen-year-old. Mom is out of the picture -- and for Cécile was never in it, a fact she introduces by explaining her mother's absence not in any relation to her but rather by noting: "My father was forty, and had been a widower for fifteen years". After being educated at a convent school, Cécile has now been living with her rather dissolute Dad, Raymond, in Paris for the past two years. She gets to play adult and accompany Dad to the parties he goes to, and merely toys with boys her own age: "I did not care for young people". Meanwhile, she has also failed her school exams. The story she recounts is of the summer vacation they spend on the Côte d'Azur. Her frivolous Dad brings along his (much younger) mistress du jour, Elsa, while Cécile soon encounters a student, Cyril, whom she finds herself attracted to. Cécile is, to some degrees, self-aware, able to diagnose, for example, that her father's attitudes towards his lovers rubbed off on her:The result, however, was that I adopted a cynical attitude toward love which, considering my age and experience, should have meant happiness rather than mere sensation. Matters are complicated when an old friend of Cécile's mother, Anne Larsen, comes to stay with them. A forty-two-year-old divorcée, she was never particularly close to Cécile's father, but once she arrives she sets about establishing herself as the queen bee in the household, wresting Raymond from Elsa and becoming the maternal figure that Cécile has always lacked. She manages quite easily: soon enough Elsa is out of the picture and Anne and Raymond are engaged -- and Anne is voicing her disapproval of Cécile's careless relationship with Cyril and insists she apply herself more to her studies. Cécile is at a loss: Yes, it was this I held against Anne: she kept me from liking myself. I, who was naturally meant for happiness and gaiety, had been forced into self-criticism and a guilty conscience. Unaccustomed to introspection, I was completely lost. And what good did she do me ? Yet Cécile is torn back and forth, drawn to the stability of a traditional family that Anne's continued presence promises while also being tempted by love and sex and simple frivolity. She notes:My love of pleasure seems to be the only consistent side of my character. Is it because I have not read enough ? In Paris there was no time for reading; after lectures my boy friends hurried me off to the movies. Here, now, forced to study, she finally gets around to some reading, but not to best effect: she latches onto some sentences from Bergson and begins to hatch a plan. It eventually involves Elsa and Cyril pretending to be in love, arousing the jealousy of Raymond, who -- Cécile knows -- will not be able to resist showing everyone who is the man. Cécile remains torn, drawn to what Anne offers even as she puts her plan into practice:I longed for her to ask me: "Well, what is the matter ?" and to ply me with questions, force me to tell her everything. Then I would be won over and she could do anything she liked with me, and I should no longer be in torment. She looked at me attentively. I could see the deep blue of her eyes darken with concentration and reproach. Then I understood it would never occur to her ply me with questions and so deliver me from myself, because even if the thought had entered her head, her code of behavior would have forbidden it. The plan is, of course, all too successful. For a while after its smashing success Cécile is left with remorse and a bit of guilt, doing penance with her father. Raymond melodramatically announces: "Now we have only each other. We are alone and unhappy" -- but that doesn't last: "Life began to take its old course, as it was bound to" and they enjoy the same sort of happiness they always had -- i.e. a fairly empty one, but at least in the intimate and other company of members of the opposite sex. But, of course, there's a bit more of a hangover from these events, with Cécile also indulging in her own bit of would-be cathartic melodrama. As the book's closing lines have it:Something rises in me that I call to by name, with closed eyes. Bonjour, tristesse ! This rather simple teenage story is largely redeemed by Cécile's self-awareness, which is more acute than what one usually finds in narrators her age. She may not have practiced much introspection, but she understands -- and explains (without explaining too much ...) -- what's behind her own motives and actions. Both her love-life -- one of curiosity more than passion -- and her complex relationship with Anne, the mother she wants, but who she also wants to escape from -- are convincingly presented, even if much else in the story (including frivolous Dad) is fairly silly. Short and quick, Bonjour Tristesse is a decent enough read of late-teenage confusion, and it holds up quite well. Sagan's writing is an appealing mix of naïve and self-indulgent, without waxing excessively poetic, and the pacing of the story is good: for this sort of thing, it's not bad at all. [Note: The American paperback comes with an Introduction by Diane Johnson. She apparently assumes readers are familiar with the film or the book, as she notes that: "From today's perspective, the ending is foreshadowed with a clarity that is almost clumsy" -- and proceeds to explain why. Johnson may be correct; nevertheless, by pointing this out (and then explaining so much that even if the foreshadowing were not clumsy the ending is now completely clear) she gives far too much away to the uninitiated. That's unacceptable in an Introduction.]- M.A.Orthofer, 13 December 2009 041b061a72


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