In 1956, at the age of 18, Jean Seberg – one of more than 18,000 wannabes in a Hollywood X Factor-style search for a new star – was plucked from obscurity by director Otto Preminger. She went on to become a cinematic icon in Jean Luc Godard's seminal film Breathless four years later and killed herself at 40, following years of personal turmoil exacerbated by the infamous lies spread about her by the FBI.
François Truffaut described Seberg as "the best actress in Europe", but we are left with glimpses of fleeting luminosity from a faltering career and tragically short life. One of those outstanding moments came in Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse, newly restored and screened this month at the London film festival. The movie is now widely regarded as a prime example of Hollywood's golden age, and both its star and its famously tyrannical director are ripe for rediscovery.
The French new wave directors championed Preminger and, for Godard, the performance festival-goers will see was a major influence. "The character played by Jean Seberg [in Breathless] was a continuation of her role in Bonjour Tristesse," he later said. "I could have taken the last shot of Preminger's film and started after dissolving to a title: "Three years later"."
Godard's hugely influential debut film rose to 13th in Sight & Sound magazine's latest greatest-films-of-all-time poll, released in August. Mark Rappaport, who made the fascinating fictionalised documentary From the Journals of Jean Seberg in 1995, summed up the parallels: "Whatever Seberg does in Breathless, she's already done in Bonjour Tristesse. She looks at the camera for achingly long periods of time, with zero expression on her face, with her voiceover accompanying it. This was the first time that kind of technique had been appropriated."
"Bonjour Tristesse was regarded at the time as an attempt to do something a bit scandalous," says Preminger biographer and Edinburgh film festival artistic director, Chris Fujiwara. "To me, it's a film that always astonishes and always seems fresh, much of that owing to Seberg, who is a striking and strange presence. Her character seems at once close to us and also remote; in many ways, she's a quintessential Preminger protagonist."
To elicit the performance, Preminger did not spare his protege the tough time to which he subjected many of those who worked for him. Seberg's biographer, Garry McGee, says the crew called Preminger "the Fuhrer" behind his back, and on Bonjour Tristesse his familiar on-set tirades were directed at the actor.
The film's milieu is the jetset at play on the French Riviera; the director's masterful use of CinemaScope affords a marvellous contrast between the sun-drenched hues of summer on the coast, with the Paris aftermath, a year later – in which the central characters have to live with the stark reality of the consequences of their idyllic holiday – shot in black and white.
Seberg plays Cécile, the flighty teenage daughter of rich playboy Raymond (David Niven). Her flirtatious relationship with him and her freegoing, amoral lifestyle are threatened by her father's impetuous plan to marry his late wife's best friend, Anne (memorably played by Deborah Kerr). Cécile's plan to use Raymond's mistress and her own boyfriend to try and split up the pair leads to a haunting climax centred on Seberg's character.
France aside, Bonjour Tristesse was a flop with both public and critics when it was released in 1958 – the second failure Preminger and Seberg had experienced after her acting debut, Saint Joan (1957). But both the movie and Preminger's standing, not helped by the sharp decline of his later years, are being reassessed.
Preminger had a complete retrospective of his 40 movies devoted to him at the Locarno film festival this summer, and Fujiwara believes it's no surprise he is back in vogue. "He represents the beauty and complexity of classical cinema and at the same time represents a kind of modernity, an openness. That openness expressed itself in his attitude to his characters and his willingness to allow the audience to judge them."
Preminger's characteristically cool objectivity, mobile camerawork and expert framing are all on show in Bonjour Tristesse; at its heart is Seberg as the spoilt teenager, giving arguably the performance of her career. Seberg, understandably, found it impossible to match the heights of Breathless or Bonjour Tristesse, either in France or in Hollywood after her return there to make Lilith (1964) with Warren Beatty.
Seberg's personal travails were made worse when the FBI targeted her because of her support for civil rights groups. Bureau agents constantly stalked her and had her phones bugged and homes broken into. Most notoriously, a false story was planted in both Newsweek magazine and the Los Angeles Times that her second child, who subsequently died when two days old, was fathered by a member of the Black Panther party.
In 1973, six years before she was found dead in her car – the result of a "probable suicide", according to a Paris coroner – Truffaut tried to cast her in his paean to the movies, Day for Night; for reasons that remain a mystery, he couldn't get in contact with her. He was certainly smitten by what he saw in Bonjour Tristesse. He wrote in 1958: "When [Seberg] is on screen 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."
•Bonjour Tristesse screens at the London film festival on October 12 and 13
Literature – Maupassant
Name of Resource
Type of Resource
|Maupassant Introduction & la Mère Sauvage||Word||Introduction on Maupassant (Multiple choice) and Vocabulary and Questions on Mother Savage|
|La Mère Sauvage||Word||15 Comprehension Questions on Mother Savage|
|Bonjour Tristesse||Word||Quotes and what do they mean? Not sure if linked to Maupassant, please email me if they aren’t.|
|Boule de Suif Pensees||Word||Main themes of the short story, overview of main character and some comments on themes and quotes.|
|Boule de Suif Vocab & Questions||Word||Vocabulary on Boule de Suif and plenty of questions for comprehension and discussion|
|Boule de Suif – Resumee||Word||Summary of the beginning of the story|
|Boule de Suif Model Essay||Word||Décrivez les caractéristiques des Prussiens dans ces contes de Maupassant. A votre avis, que voulait-il montrer à travers cette représentation des Prussiens ? – Model Answer|
|Boule de Suif Essay Plans||Word||Two essay plans: Comment la Mère Sauvage réagit-elle en découvrant que son fils est mort? Pensez-vous que la fin de ce conte soit réussie? Justifiez votre réponse. AND “Il ne faut jamais résister aux gens qui sont les plus forts” dit le comte à Boule de Suif. Expliquez pourquoi il le dit. Est-ce toujours les forts qui gagnent?|
|Un Duel||Word||Questions on Un Duel|
|Essay Titles||Word||Past essay titles (Edexcel) on Boule de Suif|
|Essay Titles 2||Word||Past essay titles (Edexcel) on Boule de Suif and other war stories|
|Moupassant Essay Plan||Word||« Pour Maupassant la guerre est à la fois cruelle et stupide. » Jusqu’à quel point êtes-vous d’accord avec cette affirmation ? Quels autres aspects de la guerre sont décrits par Maupassant ?|
|Mixed Quotes||Word||Where do these quotes come from? And what do they mean?|
Liturature – Moliere
Name of Resource
Type of Resource
|Avare quotes – who says them and what do they mean?|
|Harpagon – Description et Reflection: Act by act description of the character and key quotes followed by past essay titles (Edexcel)|
|Themes in Avare|
|Malentendus, Duperies + Comedie in Avare|
|Video Questions and initial Avare questions|
|13 Essay questions on Avare|
Literature – Sagan
Name of Resource
Type of Resource
|Quotes and what do they mean?|
|Main character information: Cecile|
|Décrivez les aventures des enfants/adolescents dans le livre de votre choix. Étaient-ils heureux? Model Essay answer for Bonjour Tristesse|
|Décrivez les problèmes d’un adolescent dans un livre que vous avez lu. Qu’est-ce que vous auriez fait à la place de l’adolescent? Essay plan for Bonjour Tristesse|
|Questions for chapters 1-3|
|Questions for chapters 4-6 and more questions for chapters 1-6|
|Questions for chapters 7-12|
|A summary of the story and it’s main points|
General Literature Help