By Chaz Lipp

File this one under “creepy father-daughter relationship” dramas. Otto Preminger’s 1958 Bonjour Tristesse (now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time) opens in black-and-white, with barely legal Cécile (Jean Seberg) mired in melancholy. After callously ditching her artist boyfriend on what he calls the “best day” of his life, we see her jumping around from guy to guy—unwilling (or unable) to make any commitments. Through voiceover she tells us things “aren’t the same” with her father. That’s what really seems to be bothering her.

By the time we flashback to the bold, Technicolor paradise of summer on the French Riviera, it’s awfully hard to like Cécile. But in these scenes, set only one year prior to the B&W opening, she’s a vision of youthful exuberance in a tight red swimsuit. She and her father Raymond (David Niven) lovingly kiss on the lips before their ritual of “smelling the day” (literally). Raymond is a blithely carefree widower, enjoying the sexual liberation of not having a wife to tie him down. Cécile appears oddly untroubled by her mother’s passing, happy that her father’s girlfriend Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) is around her age and an ideal friend. It is summer in the south of France and the world is Raymond and Cécile’s playground.
Enter Anne (Deborah Kerr). She was Raymond’s wife’s close friend and now feels compelled to take her late friend’s place. She believes herself capable of being the only woman in Raymond’s life, ending his casual relationships forever. Anne also feels she can focus Cécile, banning her from seeing the boy in her life and forcing her to concentrate on academic pursuits. But the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, with Cécile more interested in living in the moment and having empty fun.
Every now and then we flash forward to the present, always portrayed in starkly contrasting B&W. Preminger expertly controls the suspense as we try to figure out what could have gone so obviously wrong. What changed Raymond and Cécile’s attitudes towards their self-indulgent lifestyle? Their behavior seems largely the same, living a life of privilege that only the rich can. But the joy has drained right out of their existence. At least they still have each other, though even Cécile recognizes that something is essentially different between them.

Matching shirts for father and daughter (Promo still – not Blu-ray screencap)

Those intrigued by this set-up, daringly provocative for a film of its era, would do well to look for Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-ray. A total of 3,000 copies are available exclusively through their distributor, Screen Archives. Arthur Laurents crafted a subtly engrossing screenplay based on the novel of the same name by Françoise Sagan. Niven, Kerr, and especially Seberg contribute finely-tuned performances. Niven and Seberg, for their part, make Bonjour Tristesse a character study about people entirely lacking in character. The beautiful cinematography of Georges Périnal initially lulls us into believing the fantasy that the father and daughter are happy-go-lucky. But the equally stylish but somber B&W represents the true nature of their emotionally tumultuous world.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is a winner, with the 2.35:1 image bursting at the seams with brilliant reds, blues, and golden yellows. The 1080p transfer always looks appropriately like a 1958 production, complete with visible grain structure. But the clarity and level of subtle detail is very impressive. The full spectrum of grays is covered in the B&W sequences, which, if anything, are even sharper than the color segments. The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack is less noteworthy, simply because it’s just a solid presentation of clear, clean dialogue and well-mixed music and effects. By the way, in case the French title threw you, the film is entirely in English (save for the odd line or two).
Georges Auric’s score is available as a 2.0 DTS-HD isolated track, a standard feature for Twilight Time releases. The film’s trailer is also included, notable for the presence of novelist Françoise Sagan in an awkwardly edited interview. Julie Kirgo provides a wealth of information in the Blu-ray booklet. For those interested in one of the quirkier, more off-beat minor classics of the ‘50s, Bonjour Tristesse is an intriguing treat.
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