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August 01, 2005

Francoise Sagan Double Feature

Bonjour Tristesse
Otto Preminger - 1958
Columbia Tri Star Region 1 DVD

A Few Hours of Sunlight
Un Peu de Soleil Dans l'eau Froide
Jacques Deray -1971
Vanguard DVD

After finally seeing Bonjour Tristesse on cable a couple of years ago, I decided that while I might not read anything by author Francoise Sagan, I would see a couple more films based on her novels. My significant other and I saw La Chamade a couple of months ago. More recently, I saw A Few Hours of Sunlight. Additionally, I was encouraged to read Sagan, so I read Bonjour Tristesse in addition to seeing the film on DVD.

For me it was jarring to see Preminger's film immediately after reading Sagan's novel. Jean Seberg was the right age for the role of Cecile, the self absorbed 17 year old, and looked similar to Sagan with her boyishly short hair. The film takes the novels first person narrative from the point of view of Cecile, but that point of view is expressed differently in the shift from book author (Sagan) to film author (Preminger). What makes the difference is that while Sagan was writing for a young French audience, Preminger's characters are Anglo-American in both speech and attitudes. Cecile's father, played by David Niven, maintains his facade as the English gentleman by sleeping in the little guest house, while Sagan's roue of a father clearly shares his bedroom with his mistresses. Sagan's Cecile actually discusses a passage from Bergson, while Preminger's Cecile drops the names of Pascal and Spinoza. Perhaps it is in part the difference between what one can do with literature as opposed to film, but Sagan's Cecile is an intellectual slacker, while Preminger's Cecile sometimes appears as an American teenage girl who happened to vacation at the Riviera.

There is also some parts of the film that Preminger and screenwriter Arthur Laurents seemed to put in that may have been intended to lighten Sagan, but seem to play to a tourist's view of France. Created for the film are three identical sisters, played by the same actress, as the villa's maid. A scene of a town dance seems to have been created to show American audiences how free spirited French people are. A minor character in Sagan's novel, a drunk South American millionaire, is too cute by half. The trailer, included in the DVD, indicates that audiences were sold a more lighthearted romp than what was written by Sagan.

The difference could also be that literary audiences are more receptive of precocious writers and literary characters. Sagan was 18 when she published her novel about a 17 year old girl who is possessive of her father, and undermines his relationship with Anne, a woman he is about to marry. The novel was an international success, and Preminger's film was the first of many films based on Sagan's novels. Sagan had a long, successful career as a novelist that was undermined by her novels eventually becoming formulaic, and addictions to alchohol and cocaine. Jean Seberg was 18 when Otto Preminger cast her as Joan of Arc following a publicized nationwide talent search. The film, Saint Joan, was a box office failure upon its initial release. I have only been able to see this film in a VHS copy and feel that it has been seriously undervalued. Seberg was only three years younger than Sagan, and with her hair still short from playing Joan, looked like a prettier version of Sagan. While Bonjour Tristesse was a modest success, Seberg never was accepted as a star by American audiences. If Seberg was never a star, she became attained icon status having co-starred in Breathless. She also made a second film based on a Sagan novel, La Recreation. Seberg's life was as tumultuous as that of some of Sagan's characters with two unhappy marriages and several affairs. Seberg ended her life following harrassment by the F.B.I. for her political activities in 1979. Seberg wanted to be taken seriously from the beginning, while audiences prefer young girls to be cute and unchallenging.

In addition to writing novels that were filmed, Sagan made an uncredited appearance in Jean Cocteau's Testament of Orpheus. Also appearing in that film was a young actress named Claudine Auger. Not only did Auger star in a Sagan based film eleven years later, but she made two films in 1971 with Barbara Bach. The former Bond girl from Thunderball also was in the giallo, Black Belly of the Tarantula, with the future Bond girl of The Spy who Loved Me.

A Few Hours of Sunlight is a much less interesting film than Bonjour Tristesse. Marc Porel, who looks something like a young Alain Delon, plays a journalist who is going through some unexplained existential crisis. He fall in love with small town married woman, Auger, and dumps his live in American girl friend, Bach. Porel acts like a cad to Auger once she moves in with him.

Here is where Sagan repeats herself. In Bonjour Tristesse, Deborah Kerr overhears David Niven telling his mistress that his marriage proposal wasn't serious. Kerr hurries to her car and is found dead. Her death is officially an accident although the book and film suggest it may have been suicide. In A Few Hours of Sunlight, Auger overhears Porel in conversation, runs off, and is found to have committed suicide.

I've seen a couple of good films by Jacques Deray, but A Few Hours isn't one of them. Of course it doesn't help that the DVD is a standard frame version that crops off parts of the side, the color is very faded, and there is a constant hiss during scenes that should be silent. Seeing a very young Gerard Depardieu as Auger's brother is a tiny bright spot in a dull film. By the time Porel begins to reflect on the error of his ways, I was glad the film was over.

Bonjour Tristesse ends with an extreme close up of Jean Seberg. Looking at a mirror, she is literally reflecting on her deliberate shallowness. Even if the shot lacks the sense of loss explained in Sagan's novel, seeing Seberg in tears is heartbreaking. Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse is not the same as Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse, but that final shot is where he gets it exactly right.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 1, 2005 07:18 PM