Otto Preminger’s bracing study of sick European souls opens in Paris, with rakish playboy Raymond (Niven) and his amoral daughter, Cecile (Seberg), on an all-hours whirlwind. Dinner parties, drinks and dancing, flitting randomly between partners: It’s the high life, of a sort. But the chilly black-and-white cinematography and Cecile’s dead-eyed stare tell a different, more doleful story. After a stoic chanteuse starts singing the title track, our aloof heroine recalls—in gorgeously saturated color—last year’s sun-dappled summer on the Riviera, when her cultured and conscientious godmother, Anne Larson (Kerr), paid a fateful visit.
Preminger invites us to observe Anne upending Cecile’s carefree existence and the teen not so kindly retaliating, and in other hands, the doom-laden narrative might come off as prurient or lurid. Yet the director uses the expansive CinemaScope frame and his eye for luxuriant, clinical mise en scéne to soberly probe rather than gleefully prod (there’s a trenchant upstairs-downstairs composition in which a servant swigs champagne in front of her obliviously hard-partying superiors), and the cast is across-the-board exemplary. Niven and Kerr keenly satirize their onscreen iconographies—the cad and the goody-goody, respectively—but it’s Seberg who cuts deepest. This was the actor’s second collaboration with Preminger, after her unfairly panned debut in the 1957 epic Saint Joan, and her naive allure is just right for a character entirely devoid of a moral center. Seberg’s performance was particularly enthralling to a young cinephile named Jean-Luc Godard; we all know the breathless results of that encounter.
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