Cécile (Jean Seberg) is a jaded member of the European jet set, who lives an endless life of parties and dances and drinking with her father, Raymond (David Niven). Raymond regards his 17-year-old daughter with obvious affection but he treats her with an indulgence bordering on Parental Neglect. In fact Cécile seems to be less of a daughter to him than a sort of companion in his own life of drinking and debauchery; he does not care if she runs wild, drinks herself stupid, or flunks her college entrance exams.
Enter Anne (Deborah Kerr), a fashion designer. Raymond is the sort of cheerful cad who has no problem inviting a woman like Anne to spend time with him on the French Rivera while his previous girlfriend, Elsa (Mylène Demongeot), is still staying in the house. Anne, who has obvious feelings for Raymond, is taken aback to discover Elsa the hot blonde on the premises, but gamely rallies. Soon enough, as the attachment between Raymond and Anne deepens, an offended Elsa takes her leave. Not long after that, Anne and Raymond tell Cécile that they're getting engaged.
Cécile quite likes the life of hedonism and pleasure-seeking that she enjoys with her father, and is not too thrilled when Anne becomes a permanent presence, especially when Anne suggests that Cécile should actually study and go to school instead of flunking out and letting her boyfriend knock her up. Cécile devises a plan to break up Raymond and Anne's relationship, not anticipating the disastrous consequences of her action.
- Ambiguous Situation: Cécile says that Anne's fatal crash was the seventh fatality on that particular cliff side hairpin turn that summer. But she's sure it was suicide, reflecting that anyone else in that situation would have left a note but that Anne chose to "let us believe" that it was an accident.
- Animated Credits Opening: The credits play over an abstract animation—swirling circles, lines, and stars—that at the end resolve themselves into a drawing of a woman's face shedding a Single Tear.
- Calling Parents by Their Name: In this case, Cécile calling her father either "Raymond" or occasionally "darling" shows how he doesn't act like her father and she doesn't seem to regard him as her father, and how they have a subtly creepy Incest Subtext relationship.
- Cast Full of Rich People: Rich folks in tuxedoes and fancy dresses swilling wine and dancing on the French Riviera.
- Deliberately Monochrome: While the bulk of the film showing the romantic summer on the French Riviera is in rich Technicolor, the Framing Device set the next year is in black and white. This demonstrates how Cécile, ridden with guilt over Anne's death, is empty inside and no longer able to get any pleasure from her lifestyle of endless dancing and drinking.
- Dramatic Drop: Anne drops a vase when she finds out, from Cécile, that Raymond's girlfriend Elsa is still in residence in the house even as Raymond has invited Anne to come stay with him. Soon she rallies and adapts a more carefree attitude (and eventually succeeds in forcing Elsa out).
- The Film of the Book: Adaptation of a French novel. Follows the plot of the novel quite closely, except for changing the name of Cécile's hapless boyfriend from Cyril to Phillipe.
- Foregone Conclusion: The use of the Framing Device with a depressed Cécile, filled with regrets, thinking back to the previous summer and believing she can never be happy again, basically guarantees that Raymond and Anne's romance will end badly.
- Framing Device: A framing device in black-and-white, in which Cécile, out for a night on the town with her father and all their friends, can't stop thinking of the summer before when Anne came to visit Raymond at their summer house on the Riviera.
- Good Stepmother: All Anne wants to do is get Cécile to quit drinking and partying so much, and actually take her studies seriously instead of relying on being a Gold Digger if her father's money ever runs out. For this, Cécile destroys her.
- The Hedonist: Raymond, who wants to spend his life drinking and dancing and going from one hot young babe to the next, and isn't interested in anything else interrupting that life, whether it be an emotional commitment or actually taking responsibility for his teenaged daughter. The main issue in the second half is whether or not he's really serious about ending his gallivanting around and starting a real relationship with Anne. She's honest enough to tell him this directly.Anne: That's what you want, isn't it? A playmate? Someone to have fun with?....Raymond I cannot be casual.
- Incest Subtext: Cécile and Raymond's relationship is more spousal than father-and-daughter, and subtly creepy. In their first scene together, as they're getting ready to go out to the club, Raymond sees Cecile in her dress and says "Any zipping or buttoning to do?", and Cecile answers "No thanks, darling, it's all done." When she's not calling her father "darling" she's calling him "Raymond", never "Father" or "Dad". When confronted with the prospect of Anne actually staying with them forever as Raymond's wife, Cécile acts exactly like a jilted spouse, saying to herself "It isn't her fault" (Anne's fault) "that he doesn't love you anymore." See also this exchange, when Elsa is mystified by Cécile and Raymond's conversation as they're talking about how upset Anne is.Raymond: Is she...?
Elsa: You two don't even need words! The perfect marriage.
- Inner Monologue: Heard from Cécile throughout the film, both in the Framing Device where she describes her life as "a hopeless waste of time" and explains her regrets, and in the story set the previous summer where rebellious teen Cécile is plotting how to break her dad and his new girlfriend up.
- Let Us Never Speak of This Again: In her Inner Monologue in the closing scene Cécile says that she and her father have never discussed the previous summer since it happened. She further explains that this year Raymond says they'll summer in Italy rather than the French Rivera, "for a change", without saying why he wants a change.
- Mathematician's Answer:
Jacques: Will I see you later?
- Cécile's answer when Jacques asks if he can see her again is less snark, and more an illustration of a deeply depressed Cécile no longer able to fake politeness.
Cécile: I don't know.
Raymond: Rene is Helen's nephew, and chauffeur.
- Raymond might be The Hedonist, and at heart a shallow and insensitive person, but he does have a quick wit.
Cécile: On which side?
Raymond: On the left side, it's an American car.
- My God, What Have I Done?: At the last moment, when Cécile sees how horrified and broken-hearted Anne is to see Raymond and Elsa together, she realizes she's gone too far. She tries to beg Anne's forgiveness, but it's too late.
- Operation: Jealousy: Seeking to break Anne and Raymond up, Anne enlists Raymond's sexy ex-girlfriend Elsa in a secret operation. Cécile will arrange for Raymond to see Elsa and Cécile's boyfriend Philippe together repeatedly, canoodling, in the hopes that this will make Raymond jealous and lead him to pursue Elsa, thus breaking up his engagement to Anne. It works—too well.
- Revealing Hug: Cécile gets up to dance with Jacques, but, as they dance together, she's staring off emptily. Her Inner Monologue reflects how she's built "a wall" around herself and can't feel pleasure from her old leisure activities anymore.
- Running Gag: Albertine, Léontine, and Claudine, the three sisters with the rhyming names who keep replacing each other as the maid at Raymond's place, when one or the other is busy or calls in sick. Raymond and Cécile can't tell them apart, and in one scene Cécile is astonished when she actually guesses correctly which sister it is. (All three characters were played by the same actress.)
- Shipping Torpedo: Cécile doesn't super oppose the idea of her dad dating her dead mom's Best Friend Anne at first, but changes her mind upon realizing that their relatioship would finish her and Raymond's laid-back, hedonistic lifestyle. It ends in tragedy when Cècile tries to re-hook up Raymond and his ex-lover Elsa... and Anne cracks so badly that she goes the Spurned into Suicide way.
- Spurned into Suicide: Anne, broken-hearted after seeing Raymond and Elsa together—the fact that the camera does not show them implies that Raymond and Elsa might be naked, and in any case Raymond makes some nasty comments about how he only asked Anne to marry him to get into her pants—goes speeding away in her car, and goes off a cliff to her death, in what is strongly implied to be suicide. (Cécile for one is sure that it was.)
- Title Drop: From The Chanteuse who is singing at the nightclub where Raymond and Cécile go in the opening sequence.I wake up every morning and I say, "Bonjour tristesse."
- Toplessness from the Back: With Sideboob to boot, in the last scene when Cécile is changing out of her dress. This was a pretty daring shot for 1958 and was typical of Otto Preminger who continually pushed boundaries and was possibly the single filmmaker most responsible for the downfall of The Hays Code.
- You're Not My Father: When Anne tries to act like a mom, sending Philippe away after catching him and Cécile horizontal on the floor and telling Cécile she has to start studying, Cécile angrily tells her "My father tells me what to do, not you!". The point, of course, is that Raymond does not tell Cécile what to do and in fact lets her run wild.