May 21, 2012

From The Journals of Jean Seberg (1995)

Director / Writer / Producer / Editor: Mark Rappaport
Cinematographer: Mark Daniels
Planet Pictures; 97 min; color

Mary Beth Hurt (Jean Seberg)

Mary Beth Hurt talks to the screen sporting a short blond haircut and a ”New York Herald Tribune” T-shirt, portraying an older, but much wiser Jean Seberg, in the attire of her most famous role, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. This was one of a few highlights in an erratic career and a turbulent life. Hurt, as Seberg, speaks to us from an empty grey set (cinematic purgatory?), taking us on the actress’ journey through Hell, documenting her sudden celebrity through to explaining her own suicide at the age of 40 in 1979. Michael Rappaport (whose previous work includes Rock Hudson's Home Movies) has made another documentary about the truth behind the fa├žade of movie iconography, using a decoupage of film clips, not just for ironic counterpoint, but to illustrate the thin line between “reel life” and “real life”.  (This line is further blurred, when it is also learned that in real life, the actress had been Mary Beth Hurt’s babysitter.)

Jean Dorothy Seberg was the eighteen year-old winner of a nationwide talent search by Otto Preminger for the role of Joan of Arc in the director’s latest film Saint Joan (1957). Although much publicity surrounded the making of the film (especially surrounding the young Iowa native turned overnight celebrity), the film however was a flop. The reason for its failure was not entirely the fault of the untrained actress, and likely more due to the excesses of her tyrannical director. To prove that “he was right and everyone else was wrong” about casting the inexperienced actress, Preminger used her again in Bonjour Tristesse, but quickly dropped her after that picture too became a flop. Her being used, abused and discarded would be a motif for the next twenty years of her life.

But the French film critic turned director Jean-Luc Godard resurrected her in his New Wave classic, Breathless, in a role he claimed was a continuation of her part in Bonjour Tristesse. But that was the first of very few screen highlights -namely Lilith (which Hurt/Seberg regards as her finest hour) and the big-budget, star-studded Airport- in a troubled career.

ABOVE: Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless.

As much as her first screen character was literally burned by her persecutors, so too figuratively was the actress offscreen. Seberg explains how through her life she was a pawn, not just for film directors with delusions of grandeur, but also for the FBI. Her activist causes, especially her support of the Black Panther party, caused the “powers that be” to bury her, and perhaps to set an example for other celebrities who would shake the establishment. Further scandal ensued over allegations that a Black Panther fathered her unborn child. (The infant was white, but only lived two days.)

However, Hurt/Seberg maintains, the FBI chose to destroy her because other famous activists like Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave came from powerful celebrity families. Jean Seberg may not have straddled a gun in Hanoi, or used an Oscar speech as an excuse to voice a political agenda, however she was the celebrity “enfant terrible” to most pay for her supposed crimes.

Interestingly, Rappaport’s cinematic essay shares a common trait of Seberg and her celebrity activist contemporaries, where all three were exploited by their film director husbands: Fonda by Roger Vadim for her sexuality; Redgrave by Tony Richardson for her lack thereof; Seberg by novelist-turned-auteur Romain Gary for her vulnerability (in the vanity projects Birds of Prey and Kill!).

From The Journals of Miss Jean Seberg is a confessional from beyond the grave, in which “Jean d’Arc” is finally enabled to defend her life. This film is not a conventional celebrity biography: if for example, Rappaport fails to mention one of her finest works, The Mouse That Roared, it is simply because his schemata is to highlight the moments of her life that are central to the themes of persecution and abuse. The use of film clips and narration result in more of a filmic essay than a cinematic experience, however the result is a devilishly clever, revealing and upsetting film that somehow finds bitter humour in the irony juxtaposing the glossy Hollywood images and Hurt/Seberg’s tragic dialogue.

After a turbulent, short life, and a career spanning 37 films, Jean Seberg is still best remembered today for her role in Breathless. If one screen image is recalled from her filmography, it is her character’s blank face staring at the camera, uttering “What is a bitch?”, before turning her back to us. That ambiguous image, full of mystery, has become part of pop culture. Rappaport’s film succeeds in realizing the complex personality of the person who was often a symbol.

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