A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan, translated by Anne Green
A Certain Smile is a short novel from 1956 about the obsessive boredom and romances of gamine Sorbonne student Dominique, torn between her boyfriend Bertrand and his uncle Luc. This is Francoise Sagan's second work following the popular Bonjour Tristesse, which had the same Freudian and existentialist overtones and the same wandering youth at its center. Sagan was known for an ability to capture experiences as they were happening with clarity and perspective and precise poetic language. Her writing evokes the filmic ennui of Antonioni and Godard. In fact, Godard chose Jean Seberg for A bout de Souffle on the basis of her performance as a nihilistic disconnected girl in Bonjour Tristesse. Sagan is criticized for writing shallow stories, for writing the same story over and over. But most writers repeat the story of their lives and Sagan delineated the gender relations of her time and place without dwelling on them. This reader sees the feminist critique inherent in Dominique's story, though Dominique herself seems to be more comfortable with the sexism of her time. Women are sold the fantasies of romance and they are its casualties. Sagan's romances are unhappy, problematized by money, gender, work, boredom, fun, selfishness, and age. She writes of the same specific circumstances that have universal appeal and resonance. A Certain Smile is particular to youth of late fifties France, though boredom, romance, privilege, and inconstancy are perennial subjects. Just last week I saw a woman reading Bonjour Tristesse in Italian on a Milan-bound train from Cinque Terre. Sagan's work is perfect for the Italian Riviera.
In one-hundred-twenty-eight pages, Sagan reveals the vicissitudes of the mercurial Dominique, both passionate and indolent. Dominique's family and friends are impressions and outlines. This is not necessarily a deficiency of her writing, but a comment on solipsism; Dominique cannot really see beyond herself. She judges the looks and behavior of people in her effort to situate herself: "She was tall, blonde and a trifle heavy; beautiful, yes, but not aggressively so, I thought to myself that she was the kind of woman many men would like to have for keeps, a woman that would make them happy, a gentle woman."
She's trying to find out who she is, which kind of woman she is, and she seems to think there are only about three options. Her friend Catherine is untroubled by anxiety and falls in love easily. Dominique's mother is a depressive and Bertrand's mother is loud. Francoise, the wife of Dominique's lover Luc, is maternal and yielding. The theme of Sagan's work is always love and desire and the impossibility of being free; a lover is to be sought, a lover binds you, pins you down, traps you in the confusion of what you feel, do you want to be connected or free. In the beginning Dominique says she loves Bertrand but he bores her:
I got up in the morning, went to classes, and met Bertrand for lunch. Then there were the Sorbonne library, movies, work, friends and outdoor cafes. In the evening we danced, or else we went to Bertrand's room, where we stretched out on the bed, made love and then talked for hours in the dark. I was happy enough, but inside me, like a warm, living animal, there was a feeling of boredom, loneliness and occasionally of exhilaration. I thought there must be something wrong with my liver.
Dominique is always having epiphanies: "At a certain point I leaned against the machine and watched the record rise slowly, then slant down to meet the needle, almost tenderly, like a cheek. For some reason a terrific feeling of happiness swept over me; I had an overwhelming intuition that some day I was going to die, that my hand would be gone from the chromium edge and the sun from my sight." She claims to have discovered her Self through Bertrand but she drops him to discover more through the jaundiced Luc. She sees the choice between Bertrand and Luc as the choice between "books, conversation and long walks... pleasures of money and futility."
The choice between one man and the other defines her. While Dominique worries about her exams at Sorbonne and mentions her depressed mother and a family that has never recovered from a young boy's death, she is preoccupied by romance. She wants to be an "unscrupulous, unconcerned Parisian." She canoodles with a stranger in a movie theater only to feel bad about it afterward. The anxiety of love is fixated on identity and self-discovery. Dominique worries about her waiflike slovenliness and Francoise feels bad about her wrinkles and eating too many sweets. They have a connection that falls short of real solidarity. Francoise dresses her, guides her, and acts as the mother Dominique doesn't have. Dominique perceives her disinterest in soliciting advice from her mother as a sign that she is growing up. She is individuating from her family but is seeking the same toxic structures elsewhere. Luc is the father she doesn't have. He takes her to the sea. While Luc is selfish and foolish, it is to his credit that he reveals his intentions to Dominique: "We'd be very happy, very tender; I'd introduce you to the sea, to money and the freedom it brings... of course, I'd go back to Francoise. But what risk do you run? The risk of getting attached to me and letting yourself in for some pain? That's better than boredom, any day, isn't it?"
Of course Dominique falls for him. It is her fate. Every character fulfills their very French fates in this story. There is a chilling and telling moment when Dominique is with Luc and Francoise and he unknowingly plays their song, the Johnny Mathis song of the book's title. He has no memory of the songs importance and Dominique panics. This is a formative relationship for a girl. She cares too much about a man, a man who makes her feel ridiculous for caring too much, and catalyzes her insecurity and fraudulent feelings.
By the end, Dominique does not see herself as ruined and deceived, she sees everyone as complicit in this human drama and is happy to have had an experience, sees it as part of living and growing up. She feels a sacrificial urge, loneliness, resignation, and a new beginning. Sagan is wise when she tells us, "it was a simple story."
A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan, translated by Anne Green
University of Chicago Press