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    Bonjour Jean

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    His life as a more independent filmmaker in the 1950s was more agreeable to director Otto Preminger. After being freed from being exclusive to Twentieth Century Fox he made a nifty noir (Angel Face, 1952), a titillating sex comedy (The Moon Is Blue, 1953), a brawny outdoor adventure (River of No Return, 1954), a groundbreaking musical (Carmen Jones, 1954), a gripping look at drug addiction (The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955) and a biographical courtroom drama about a controversial military figure (The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, 1955). Then he turned his attention to a Graham Greene adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1957) – and to the young, pretty and naïve 17-year-old from Marshalltown, Iowa, whom he chose from an estimated 3,000 auditioning hopefuls to play the title role: Jean Seberg. With a cast of experienced and assured actors surrounding her (including Jose Ferrer, Richard Widmark, Anton Walbrook and Kenneth Haigh), her performance as the Maid of Orleans truly could be called a trial by fire between the demanding, perfectionist director and a stubbornly determined movie-debuting neophyte. The resulting movie, which Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch dubbed “the most touching merger of idealism and commerce in the filmmaker’s career,” was a brutal critical and box-office failure. Preminger would later say in his autobiography that he failed Seberg in not working enough to season her in the part well in advance of filming. But the director saw his next project, based on a notorious best-seller and set among the idle – and callously hedonistic – European rich, as one where he knew the territory and one in which his protégé might succeed very well in a role far from saintly. Bonjour Tristesse (1958), which opened this day 58 years ago, would also be a failure among American critics and moviegoers, but its reputation – bolstered by enthusiastic French reviewers – has grown enormously in the decades since. Filmed on beautiful locations (Paris, Cannes, Le Levandou and Antibes), it explores a rather intimate story in a rather intoxicating milieu. The venerable David Thomson describes it this way in his invaluable Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films: “The rather brittle Françoise Sagan novel makes a remarkable film, about a teenage girl [Seberg] who grows up as she destroys her playboy father’s [David Niven] relationship with perhaps the first mature woman of his life [Deborah Kerr]. Shot by Georges Périnal in an intriguing mixture of black and white (the present) and color (the past), Bonjour Tristesse is the rare picture of a spoiled child who infects the world with her malign selfishness. It is a very challenging part, and there are scenes of Seberg regarding herself in a mirror that take one straight back to the power of Preminger’s Angel Face. Indeed, in many ways it is the same character, and the Viennese director shows himself an expert at pathological behavior.” He adds: “This is one more of those films that put to the lie the canard that Scope was ill suited to intimate space. In addition, a great deal is gained from the melancholy score by Georges Auric and the designs of Roger Furse.” Twilight Time’s immaculately rendered hi-def Blu-ray captures all these elements and showcases the elusive magic of Seberg, who would remain in Europe and be cast the following year in Jean Luc-Godard’s Breathless (1960), the fact of which made Preminger proud of his faith in her. Let critic/soon-to-be filmmaker François Truffaut have the last word. He wrote: “When Jean Seberg is on screen, which is all the time, you can’t look at anything else. Her every movement is graceful, each glance is precise. The shape of her head, her silhouette, her walk, everything is perfect; this kind of sex appeal hasn’t been seen on the screen. [With] short blond hair on a pharaoh’s skull, wide-open blue eyes with a glint of boyish malice, [she] carries the entire weight of this film on her tiny shoulders. It is Otto Preminger’s love poem to her.” Another rarely seen romantic visit to France featuring Bonjour Tristesse's fascinating Ms. Seberg arrives on the TT label this Spring.