“Francoise Sagan’s bittersweet novel Bonjour Tristesse is given a sumptuous Riviera-filmed screen treatment. David Niven plays a wealthy playboy, the father of teenaged libertine-in-the-making Jean Seberg. Seberg tolerates most of her father’s mistresses, but doesn’t know what to make of the prudish Deborah Kerr, who will not cohabit with Niven until after they’re married. Feeling that her own relation with her father will be disrupted by Kerr’s presence, Seberg does her malicious best to break up the relationship–only to be beaten to the punch by Niven, who despite his promises of fidelity to Kerr cannot give up his hedonistic lifestyle. The combination of the daughter’s disdain and the father’s rakishness drive Kerr to suicide. Niven and Seberg continue pursuing their lavish but empty lifestyle, though both realize that their lack of moral fibre has destroyed a life. The incestuous undertones of the original Sagan novel are only slightly downplayed in the film version; the “tristesse” (sadness) is visually conveyed by filming the Deborah Kerr flashback scenes in color and the opening and closing of the film in bleak black and white. Bonjour Tristesse was codirected by Otto Preminger, who’d previously discovered Jean Seberg for his benighted 1957 filmization of Saint Joan.
Considered a fascinating study of decadence and possessiveness by some and soap operatic trash by others, Bonjour Tristesse is at the very least a stylishly-directed, gorgeously shot film that is immensely entertaining. Jean Seberg was generally dismissed by critics upon the film’s release; it’s true that she seems uncomfortable (and occasionally miscast) in many places, but her performance is actually more than satisfactory and occasionally shows glimpses of the talent that would reach fruition with Breathless. Much more fully realized performances are supplied by David Niven and Deborah Kerr. Kerr is quite good; if her performance is a trifle lacking in surprise and spontaneity, it still produces a feeling of warmth for the character that is essential to the film’s success. Niven is in top form, oily and lecherous yet with the charm necessary to make his character’s success believable. Preminger’s use of color for the flashback sequences is less impressive than it was originally, but it does its job, and his sure hand is evident in practically every cunningly-composed widescreen frame. He is particularly adept at hinting at an incestuous relationship between Seberg and Niven without ever resolving the question, creating a tension that infuses the entire film. The film also makes wonderful use of its French Riviera locations and designer gowns, resulting in a sumptuous visual feast. Whether Tristesse’s “message” is shallow or profound is a matter of debate and personal taste, but that message has been delivered in a gorgeously wrapped gift box.”