Otto Smash

BONJOUR TRISTESSE is beautiful, odd, trashy at times — it perfectly captures the feeling if an endless summer, but brackets its lustrous Saint-Tropez Technicolor with monochrome scenes in Paris that make it all too clear the idyll is doomed. Preminger only mixed colour with b&w this one time, but it seems appropriate to his perversity that he used monochrome for the present tense. Of course it makes a clear emotional point about the joy having drained from our young protagonist’s life (and suits the particular looks of St Tropez and Paris) but of course it doesn’t withstand a literal-minded interpretation, and at the same time it’s too obvious to sublimate into symbolism.

Somewhat random side-note — just stumbled upon the fact that, while filming the Great Fire of London for FOREVER AMBER, Otto nearly incinerated Linda Darnell, eerily anticipating her eventual tragic fate by some years. It was a piece of collapsing set that did it, or nearly. And I thought, My God, Otto had form, because he nearly burned Jean Seberg to death making JOAN OF ARC, and did in fact take her eyebrows off. It may be unfair to blame him wholly, since a director is somewhat at the mercy of what the pyrotechnics people say is safe, but on the other hand, fish stinks from the head, and a director is quite able to say “That sounds kinda risky,” or “I’d like some more safety measures in place.” Otto instead follows in the tradition of his fellow Viennese Fritz Lang, who came close to creating Brigitte Helm on METROPOLIS.

There’s a smouldering death here, too, but off-screen, represented by a great black smoke signal against the azure Mediterranean sky, produced by car crash (see also ANGEL FACE), and anticipating Otto’s own accident when he was struck down and badly injured by a car (I imagine the driver’s astonishment at Mr. Freeze suddenly impacting his windscreen).

We’re in the world of Françoise Sagan, based on the novel she published at nineteen. Her youth seems to grant her a strong insight into the thought processes of teenage Cecile (Jean Seberg), with the slight disadvantage that everyone else behaves like an adolescent too. The one real adult, supposedly, Deborah Kerr’s character, is as extreme as everyone else, really, just in a different direction.

I wonder what the shoot was like? I mean, it looks like heaven: Paris and the Côte d’Azur (with Otto now starting his later shoot-it-all-on-location phase), attractive people, and David Niven on hand to stop Otto getting too beastly — Niv had stood up to Michael Curtiz (“Vhere is your script?” “I don’t need it.” “Run and get it!” “YOU fucking run and get it.”) and knew that all bullies are cowards. (It’s possible that everybody’s a coward, and bullies have just discovered a peculiarly extrovert way of handling it. It [a] works for them and [b] makes the world a more hideous place.)

The movie is a fashion show (Givenchy, Hermès, Cartier), and an art show, and a parade of beautiful, rich, foolish people we shouldn’t have any sympathy for and mostly don’t. But I found I still felt for Seberg’s spoilt brat a little, perhaps because Seberg herself was so tragic. Otto was determined to make her a star — she’d been roasted for JOAN OF ARC and the American critics wouldn’t accept her as French here either, as if it mattered. You accept she’s Niven’s daughter even though he’s English playing French. And if they’re French, what is the heavily-accented Mylene Demongeot? Doesn’t matter.

Critical hostility to Seberg was probably mostly about her flat Iowan accent, which Austrian Otto was perhaps not sensitive to — she can seem bad even when she’s emotionally on point — I remember her being wooden in THE MOUSE THAT ROARED, which came after this. Efforts to deaden the accent add layers of self-consciousness to someone whose charm ought to be in their naturalness. This is the movie where it all kind of fits.

Niven is very fine also, in a role with uncomfortable echoes of his own life — not the creepy Elektra complex stuff, the idea of the playboy who finally tries to settle down, only for fate to knife him in the back. Deborah Kerr seems like the kind of woman who could reform him. And here’s Martita Hunt, maybe the only actor to appear for Otto in the forties, fifties and sixties?

BONJOUR TRISTESSE stars Sister Clodagh; Squadron Leader Peter Carter; St. Joan of Arc; Milady de Winter; Lieutenant Joyce; Georgette Aubin; Mr. Silence; Miss Havisham; Lord Desham; Jackson’s Doxy; Sir Hugo Baskerville; Adrian Baskerville; and the Fiddler on the Roof.

21 Responses to “Otto Smash”

  1. And don’t forget Franklin Shepherd as Seberg’s discarded boy toy. Niven’s casting is key as the relationship between father and daughter is right on the edge of incest. But Sagan cannily portrays “Cecile” as “Raymond’s” wingman .Sebreg is beyond brilliant — a new kind of actress it took ean-Luc Godard to fully bring out

  2. Daniel Riccuito Says:


  3. Oh it’s creepy alright.But in a different way than if it were straightforward incest. Preminger tickles our “prurient interest” in the niven-Seberg relationship

  4. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Speak for yourself, Ehrenstein!

  5. bensondonald Says:

    Haven’t seen this, but the title figures in the musical “Bells Are Ringing”: Judy Holiday’s character is a small town girl who used to answer phones at the Bonjour Tristesse Lingerie Company (“a little modeling on the side”), and her big final number is about escaping the messes she’s gotten into and going home to that “land of lacy lingerie”.

  6. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    No wonder you guys defend Woody and Marty! Ick!

  7. You have a tendency to get hysterical on this subject. A key aspect of this film is that Seberg’s character has an unhealthy fixation on his father, who is an irresponsible rake, but I don’t think there’s any indication he’s aware of it or reciprocates it.

  8. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    I’d say you tend to support auteur pedophilia. See? Perfect calm.

  9. I just adopt a policy of “I don’t know,” unless I do know. Did Fritz Lang murder his first wife? Quite possibly, I don’t know. Did Robert Wagner kill Natalie Wood, by accident or on purpose or not at all? I don’t know.

  10. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    THAT’S a great film, DE.

  11. “Fritz Lang, who came close to creating Brigitte Helm on METROPOLIS.”…but Rotwang got there first.

    The relationship between Niven and Seberg’s characters isn’t incestuous, I think. They behave like contemporaries – brother and sister – so Niven can deny his age . He begins the film with a girlfriend of Seberg’s age, but it’s shown as unsatisfactory.

  12. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Keep dancing! In other news: The US just declared war on China via an incestuous relationship with George W. Bush. I AM SERIOUS. Check the NDAA.

  13. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    The Liberals: Fake war on Russia/ Make war on China
    Biden has picked up on Bush’s encirclement plan, temporarily derailed after 911 shifted US focus to the ME. China has 2 options: 1) ignore the pacts we’re making with hostile nations on and around their border, thereby accepting second-rate super-power status or b) military conflict. China was already heading down that road as it began flipping from youngest to oldest nation on earth: Imperialism as a route to a viable slave-force/work-force. Now? Oy.
    PS- I never read anything but headlines so do not worry.

  14. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Just watched Angel Face.

  15. Isn’t it wonderful? Jean Simmons is amazing in it.Evil yet oddly sympathetic. A clear precursor to “BT” in her obsession with her father(the ever-nice Herbert Marshall) Michum, of all people, ends up as roadkill. A reminder: “BT” was scripted by Arthur Laurets whomost famous work, “Gypsy” is about the destructive relationship between a mother and a daughter

  16. Daniel, I thought you were watching Fallen Angel like I told you?

    Just re-watched the amazing Daisy Kenyon, which has TWO car wrecks, one as backstory, the other front and centre (beautiful auto rolling and bouncing in snow, probably Harvey Parry at the wheel).

  17. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    DC: I couldn’t find your titles on Criterion Channel, but must admit I rushed because of dinner. Will look again. DE: I sort of hated the casting of Angel Face, but Jean Simmons got better after becoming a beatific sort of self-accusing incarnation of madness. Mitchum never dozed quite so thoroughly through an entire picture as he does here.

  18. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Plus? Mitchum’s too old. 36 and getting paunchy from booze.

  19. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    DAVID CAIRNS! I saw Fallen Angel a few years ago (checked Youtube which jarred my memory) AND LOVED IT. Big fan of Linda Darnell. Cannot recall details, will watch again.

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