Because she fell in love with acting in her teenage years, throwing herself into a number of high school plays, Seberg was elated. But her only meaningful acting experience had come in the form of one season of summer stock performances.
While excited about the prospects of becoming a movie star, Seberg was wholly unprepared for the limelight. She was also unprepared for Preminger’s cruelty. Throughout the shoot, the director consistently pushed the actress to her physical and mental brinks, climaxing with Seberg actually receiving injuries while filming the eponymous heroine’s infamous burning at the stake.
In less than a year, Seberg had gone from teenage hopeful to toast of the town. Kind of. While she was certainly the most famous adolescent in the world in 1957 — every major magazine was infatuated by her Cinderella story, always emphasizing that this small-town girl could now attend film premieres without seeming out of place — her turn in Saint Joan, as well as Saint Joan itself, was not praised. A.H. Weiler called Seberg “callow and unconvincing” and the film a “placid and undramatic theatrical exercise.” The movie was unpopular with audiences, making only $400,000 at the box office.
If the film in question were not so ambitious and pretentious, perhaps we’d have had a debut as vivid as Lauren Bacall’s in To Have and Have Not (1944). But in the aftermath of Saint Joan, Seberg was at a standstill. She had taken a golden opportunity, with no valid reason to be wary, and yet found her career foreseeably over before it had even begun.
But Preminger, despite perpetuating cruelty so consistently that Seberg had no reason to expect him to want to further their working relationship, was still interested in his discovery. Though Saint Joan was a failure, he faulted himself more than he did his leading lady. "It's quite true that, if I had chosen Audrey Hepburn instead of Jean Seberg, it would have been less of a risk,” he told the press in 1958. “But I prefer to take the risk. I have faith in her. Sure, she still has things to learn about acting, but so did Kim Novak when she started.”
Having not seen Saint Joan, I cannot validly state whether Seberg was miscast. (Judging from nearly every critical review of the film, though, she arguably was.) But noticeable is that her and Preminger’s second-chance movie, 1958’s Bonjour Tristesse, is a better fit for Seberg: It’s a fizzy melodrama in which she plays a woman-child whose initially innocent meddling with her father’s love life turns deadly.
This shouldn’t suggest that Seberg is a revelation in Bonjour Tristesse. While there are moments in which she dazzles (usually ones where she’s subdued and melancholy, without fast-paced dialogue to ginger up), we find ourselves in the presence of an actress figuring out her strengths. Those strengths would, of course, be purified in 1960 through her performance in Jean-Luc Godard’s revolutionary Breathless, wherein she was cool, glamorous, and, apparently, herself.
But in Bonjour Tristesse, she’s encumbered with a role uneven in how it suits her. She plays Cécile, a precocious 17-year-old who lives on the French Riviera with her debonair father, Raymond (David Niven). Because her mother died recently, Cécile clings to him, idolizing his every move.
To Cécile, life cannot get any more tranquil. She likes Raymond’s flirtatious, undyingly sunburned mistress Elsa (an overly cute Mylène Demongeot), and she appreciates all the days consisting of not much else besides swimming and sunbathing, and all the evenings of dining and dancing at chic restaurants in town. She’s even taken up a romance with a tanned, handsome 25-year-old (Geoffrey Horne).
But this idyllic situation is interrupted by the arrival of Anne (Deborah Kerr), an in-vogue but stuffy old friend of Raymond’s late wife. Because sexual tension bubbles whenever Raymond and Anne are within a couple feet of one another, Cécile worries, not just because she’s taken to Elsa as her only friend, but also because the domineering Anne rids the household of its hedonistic values. Cécile might even be sent to a boarding school if Raymond and Anne marry, which increasingly seems likely.
Fearing the worst, she sets a plot in motion that she hopes will remedy Raymond and Elsa’s relationship and get Anne out of the picture. But Cécile, in light of wearing the don’t-treat-me-like-a-child cliché like a bejeweled broach, forgets that people are not her playthings, and that breaking hearts is not something that can come without its consequences.
Like the lives lived by its characters, though, Bonjour Tristesse is as superficial as a champagne-drenched, weeklong vacation at a Mediterranean resort: It’s pretty but featherbrained, a half-hearted melodrama that tries to be witty and appealingly decadent but comes across self-conscious and overdressed. Preminger goes for adult escapism, using the cinematography intellectually (scenes of gloom are lensed in lush, almost sepia black and white; scenes of rosy-cheeked soap opera are photographed in exotic CinemaScope) and supplementing his hedonism-is-cursed message with a modern touch that likely is his attempt to emulate the au courant, distinctly European stylings of Louis Malle or Jean-Pierre Melville. Even the droopy-eyed, torch singing Juliette Gréco shows up to moan the title tune, as if to purvey that sadness is but a romantic, stylish emotion to be worn like a comfy chinchilla-skin jacket.
There is some interest to be found in Bonjour Tristesse, however. As unconvincingly as Seberg sometimes plays her, Cécile makes for a universal character. At 17, few believe that they don’t know everything, and Arthur Laurents’ screenplay wonderfully captures how Cécile perceives herself versus how we perceive her. The fashions and the set design are exquisite, too — Seberg and Kerr are effortlessly elegant, even when placed in simple t-shirts and high-waisted shorts, and the already-otherworldly riviera is made further eye-catching through interiors of the beautifully rustic kind.
Bonjour Tristesse has become something of a forgotten classic in the eyes of cinephiles — many consider it to be one of the more artistically thrilling movies of classic Hollywood — and was the film that helped Seberg gain traction in the European film industry. (She, along with the film, were praised by French cinema magazine Cahiers du Cinema at the time.) But I find it shallow and sort of awkward, like a high school wallflower who’s returned from a year abroad and has decided that they’re now wiser than all their classmates.
If there’s any reason to watch Bonjour Tristesse, it’s Seberg. It’s not because her performance is exceptional, but because her presence is so fascinating. When silently decorating the scenery in designer dresses and becoming casual wear, she’s a woman, the most beguiling gamine since Audrey Hepburn. But when she speaks, she suddenly becomes a child playing grown-up, not unlike the character she’s playing. The film also finds her at what was the most exciting phase of her career: as the upstart who had had a terrible first moviemaking experience but was, unbeknownst to her, about to give a performance that would change cinema forever.
Seberg never really achieved a pronounced breakthrough in her career, and would end up having a complicated, and eventually tragic, life. She became a commodity in Europe through films like Breathless and Five Day Lover (1961); an anomaly of Tinsel Town through woebegone movies like In the French Style (1963) and Lilith (1964); and a person embodying the Hollywood Golden Age’s demise through square fare like Paint Your Wagon (1969) and Airport (1970). She had three unsuccessful marriages, became heavily involved with the Black Panthers in the 1970s, was surveilled by the FBI, had a child out of wedlock — who passed away just a few days after its birth — and ultimately died at the age of 40, by her own hand. Bonjour Tristesse captures Jean Seberg at her prime, at that moment when she was new and the world was still her oyster. C+
1 Hr., 34 Mins.
n the fall of 1956, Iowa native Jean Seberg won a nationwide talent search. Lauded filmmaker Otto Preminger was adapting Saint Joan (1923), the George Bernard Shaw play, for the screen. During pre-production, it was decided that it was vital a fresh-faced waif be cast in the title role. Seberg, whose name was entered by a neighbor, was ultimately chosen from 18,000 young women.