Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled An overlooked gem from Otto Preminger, king of the best-seller adaptation

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With both Gone Girl and Left Behind opening in theaters, we look back on other adaptations of books that went to No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller list.

Advertisement

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

No discussion of best-seller adaptations is complete without a mention of Otto Preminger, who spent a good chunk of the 1950s and 1960s cranking them out at a steady clip. Some became bona fide classics (like Anatomy Of A Murder), while others have faded from public consciousness along with their source material.

Advertisement

Which brings us to Bonjour Tristesse. Françoise Quoirez was 18 when she wrote her debut novel; published under the pen name Françoise Sagan, it became an overnight sensation in France, with the English translation hitting the top of The New York Times fiction best-seller list in the summer of 1955. Preminger—who produced his own films—picked up the rights soon thereafter. To write the script, he hired Arthur Laurents, a Broadway specialist (West Side Story, Gypsy) who’d also written the screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Max Ophüls’ Caught.

Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse is an unsentimental but sensitive coming-of-age movie with the tricky flashback structure of a modern thriller. Set mostly on the French Riviera, the movie centers on Cécile (Jean Seberg), a 17-year-old who leads a decadent beachside life with her playboy father, Raymond (David Niven, perfectly cast), and his rotating assortment of much-younger girlfriends.

Advertisement

“We have great fun, don’t we?” says Raymond—whom Cécile only ever addresses by his first name—partway through the movie, with more than a hint of desperation. They have a mutually enabling relationship; Cécile’s independence allows Raymond to never act like a parent, while Raymond’s indifference means that Cécile is neither treated like a child nor expected to act like an adult. Unsurprisingly, Cécile feels betrayed when her father does the unthinkable and starts a serious relationship with a woman his own age, Anne (Deborah Kerr).

Preminger came into Bonjour Tristesse with something to prove. His previous film, an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, had been a rare critical flop, with the teenage Seberg—who’d beaten out 18,000 hopefuls for the title role—singled out for the harshest criticism. Seberg did not have a lot of range or experience as an actor. What she did have, however, was an unvarnished presence; even if her line readings often sound flat, they never sound less than genuine. She was eminently filmable.

Advertisement

The soon-to-be directors of the French New Wave nursed crushes on her. François Truffaut declared her ”the best actress in Europe.” Jean-Luc Godard—who would draw inspiration from Bonjour Tristesse’s color palette and distinctive use of long, widescreen takes for Contempt—cast her in Breathless, a movie that he imagined as an unofficial sequel to Bonjour Tristesse. “I could have taken the last shot of Preminger’s film,” he would later say, “and started after dissolving to a title: ‘Three years later.’”

Availability: Bonjour Tristesse is out of print on DVD, but can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library. The film can also be rented or purchased from the major digital outlets.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter