This evening Mylène Demongeot will be with us on the Piazza Grande to introduce Bonjour tristesse, in a brand new 35mm print showing on the biggest and finest screen in the world: an absolutely unmissable event. Yesterday she met festivalgoers to discuss her books of memoirs, and her experience with Otto Preminger.
Actress Mylène Demongeot is famous for her performances in numerous popular French films, notably Marc Allégret’s Sois belle et tais-toi, Michel Boisrond’s Faibles Femmes, Les Trois Mousquetaires (the Bernard Borderie version), the Fantomas” series alongside Jean Marais and Louis de Funès and the “Camping” movies with Franck Dubosc. It was Raymond Rouleau’s Les Sorcières de Salem (The Crucible), an adaptation of the Arthur Miller play starring Yves Montand and Simone Signoret) that revealed her talents as an actress in 1957 following small roles in Futures Vedettes and Papa, maman, ma femme et moi… But over the course of her international career she was also praised in numerous auteur films by Mauro Bolognini (La Notte Brava/The Big Night), Dino Risi (Un amore a Roma/Love in Rome), Michel Deville (A cause, à cause d’une femme/Because of a Woman), Bertrand Blier (Tenue de soirée/Ménage) and Jacques Fieschi (La Californie/French California). Her admirers also remember her in cult films such as The Singer Not the Song – a strange British western shot in Spain by Roy Ward Baker starring Dirk Bogarde and John Mills – or the Jacques Tourneur and Mario Bava peplum La Bataille de Marathon with Steve Reeves. For cinephiles, her name remains linked to a little-known masterpiece of Italian cinema, Dino Risi’s Un amore a Roma (1960) and above all Otto Preminger’s masterly adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour tristesse in 1958, in which she played Elsa, David Niven’s young French mistress, alongside Jean Seberg and Deborah Kerr. Mylène Demongeot has been to the Festival del film Locarno before, in 2007, accompanying Hiner Saleem’s Sous les toits de Paris in the international competition, in which she co-starred with Michel Piccoli. We are delighted to welcome her back to introduce Bonjour tristesse as part of the complete Otto Preminger retrospective. To prepare for her visit, we met her in her Paris apartment to discuss that significant experience that happened on the threshold of her career. Here are some edited highlights:
“When Preminger arrived in Paris looking for a young actress to play Elsa he saw Les Sorcières de Salem in the cinema and asked to meet me. My agent rang me to explain that Preminger was working on an adaptation of Bonjour tristesse. And I was indignant that after playing a major dramatic role in Raymond Rouleau’s film “this guy” dared offer me a small part in a film based on a trendy little novel by Françoise Sagan. Just to show how naive I was back then…
My agent told me to shut up and to meet Preminger. I reluctantly went along to the meeting, without doing my hair or my make-up, wearing a shapeless jumper. I arrived and said to Preminger “My dear Sir, I can’t see why you had me come here, it seems to be a light role and I am a dramatic actress and I don’t speak English; I don’t want to waste your time since I have seen your films and you are a formidable director.” He laughed, and replied, “Fine, we’ll talk again.” I left. Two days later, my agent called me to say he wanted to have lunch with me. I was flattered to be lunching with such a great director. He told me it was me he wanted. He sent an English teacher to the La Victorine studio in Nice where I was making Une manche et la belle with Henri Verneuil. This man who had come from Hollywood was extraordinary: in a month and a half, using his method of total immersion, he had me speaking well enough to do the film.
While I was in Nice, where I’d rented an apartment, Preminger sent Jean Seberg to me so she could learn French. Jean and I became good friends. I did not return to Paris and went directly from the one film to the other. Most of Bonjour tristesse was shot in Pierre Lazareff’s house which was called “La Fossette”, a really wonderful place near Lavandou. In the beginning, I was lodging in Saint-Tropez but I didn’t like the place much so I found a little cottage on the beach in Cavalière where I lived for the rest of the shoot. It was fabulous. At that time, you were employed for the duration of the whole shoot, whatever part you were playing. So I spent eight or ten weeks in the Midi, happy as a sandboy.
An American production in France
Before filming started, there were absolutely no cast rehearsals. No read-throughs. Each actor was given their own script. American directors choose you because they consider you are the character. From that moment on, the work is up to you. In France, for example on Les Sorcières de Salem, we were more used to directors who came from the theatre, like Raymond Rouleau, who were extremely directive. We’d rehearse for a month before we started shooting.
The opposite of an American director, who dresses you the way he wants you, has your hair done the way he wants it, and then asks you to be happy or petulant. The first major scene we shot for Bonjour tristesse was the one in bed where David Niven has just waken me up in the morning and I am sunburned all over. We filmed for a whole day. When Preminger saw the rushes, he wasn’t happy with them and so we started again, eight days later, and he got what he wanted.
In France when you film a shot of ten or fifteen seconds you feel like you’ve travelled to the end of the world. With Preminger, that bedroom scene was about eight or ten minutes. I was incredibly nervous and I wanted to give of my best.
My character, Elsa, is a sympathetic and rather naïve little whore who will never encounter any problems in life, since she simply moves on from one rich man to another. She has a very happy and optimistic nature, like me. And I think that that’s what appealed to Preminger and convinced him to give me the part.
David Niven was absolutely wonderful with me, incredibly sweet to me. He knew that this legendary scene would be long and difficult to shoot. He rehearsed it with me. I asked him how he, such a great actor, could be so patient with a young novice like me. He replied: “my little darling, the better you are, the better I’ll be.” In his Memoirs he talks about how much Otto Preminger irritated him. His phlegmatic nature was incompatible with Preminger’s character. But all that mattered was the result.
Preminger, a tyrant?
It all went very well. He only shouted at me once. In one scene I was supposed to be following a conversation with my eyes. Not so easy to do. Preminger wasn’t satisfied. I said to him: “Mister Preminger, I think…” and he interrupted me, shouting: “Don’t think, act!”
I was distraught, and then I did what I had to do. He was right. He thought if an actor felt too comfortable, they wouldn’t give of their best. He tended to stick the knife in to push you, and to create an atmosphere of distress and anxiety. That works with some actors, but with others it can completely paralyse them. Jean Seberg was in the latter category.
In the famous scene at the end when she removes her make-up, looking at herself in the mirror – a magnificent shot, that she just couldn’t get right for him. He wanted her face to remain impassive, but with tears rolling down her cheeks as if of their own volition. That is something that is very difficult to do. He never managed to get what he wanted and had to shoot the scene in a slightly different way. An entire day spent yelling. Jean Seberg was so tired and terrified she cried for real, tears were pouring down her cheeks, her face screwed up …
They tried using drops but that didn’t work either in what was such a long shot. Jean Seberg couldn’t find in herself that intense despair that Preminger was looking for. I’m not sure I could have managed it either.
When Preminger went to find that fresh and innocent young woman in the back of beyond in Iowa, and got her under contract, he thought that he’d found the goose that would lay the golden egg. The failure of Saint Joan was very hard to take, for both him and her. Preminger’s pride was deeply wounded. And she was in despair at disappointing the man who had believed in her. Their relationship must have changed at that time. She had the feeling that he held it against her. Sometimes he was nice to her. But he was odious when he wasn’t getting what he wanted. He was a hot-head, and had a virulent temper, he could be really scary.
One day he did something really disgusting, deliberately shooting a bathing scene with Jean Seberg when she had her period. She fainted twice.
The crew on the film was excellent. And every time we’d emerge from a screening of the rushes, he would yell at absolutely everyone, telling them they were useless, incompetent – the actors, the technicians, the great DoP Georges Périnal, who was tearing his hair out because the Mediterranean sea was a different colour every day. Everyone would hang their heads, and everyone suffered. But it was a performance.
Preminger was a calculating type. He told me: “For a film to be a success, people must feel stupid if they have to say they haven’t seen it yet.” That’s why he always chose rather scandalous subjects.
He chose to make an adaptation of Sagan because he loved France, the good restaurants, the lifestyle. Sagan’s scandalous success appealed to him and so he wanted to make a movie of it.
The film’s release
I was lucky to get really amazing reviews in New York when the film was released in the USA. The film did not go down that well, but the critics said to go and see it for the wonderful French actress in it. I was in a trance when I arrived in America; I went to New York and Chicago. I hated arriving in New York because of the success of Et Dieu créa la femme, hence a French woman was automatically a whore, or who’d take her clothes off at the drop of a hat. The only asked sleazy questions.
In France, the film was attacked as a betrayal. Sagan’s novel was considered extraordinary and the film a failure, and ridiculous because they’d chosen two British actors to play French characters. When you see Bonjour tristesse again today, you realise that the film is better than the book, it is harsher. I have great memories of this film in every respect.”
Interview with Olivier Père on April 17, 2012 in Paris. Thanks to Mylène Demongeot and Emilie Imbert.