Literally burned by Preminger, driven crazy by an army of husbands, hangers-on, and J. Edgar Hoover, Jean Seberg lives on in a new documentary
Jean Seberg was always more icon than actress. From her disastrous appearance as the title character in Preminger’s Saint Joan (1958), to Godard’s immortalizing of her face in Breathless, to her status as fashion maven in the 1960s, to her extracurricular work with the Black Panthers, Seberg’s acting career seemed secondary to her cultural presence from the beginning. Her transition from prestige pictures like Bonjour Tristesse to Eurotrash epics like her husband Romain Gary’s Birds in Peru and empty-headed blockbusters like Airport did nothing to alter the public perception of Seberg as a beautiful, troubled, “empty vessel” into which various men and male groups — the sadistic Preminger, Godard, novelist Romain Gary, the Panthers — poured their often misogynist obsessions.
Writer-director Mark Rappaport, familiar from 1992’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, has devised an ingenious strategy for dealing with this complex character in From the Journals of Jean Seberg. He hired Mary Beth Hurt (born 10 years later in the same Iowa town as Seberg) to play the actress as if she didn’t commit suicide in 1979 but lives on — like all actors — through the magic of film, reincarnated as a sort of performance artist, film historian, and cultural commentator. The illusion is remarkably successful from Hurt’s first appearance — she has the look of an aging gamin, disillusioned but still vibrant and droll. The title of the film is typical of Rappaport’s devious approach — the “diaries” don’t exist, they’re simply Rappaport’s clever conceit to explore issues of voyeurism, stardom, and exploitation.
The format of the film is loosely chronological, starting with Seberg’s appearance in Saint Joan after being chosen from 3000 contenders. We learn that director Preminger’s legendary cruelty extended far beyond the usual director-actor trials: on the day that a Life magazine photographer was invited to cover Joan being burned at the stake, Preminger allowed Seberg to actually be burned. This event is rendered in a dazzling collage style typical of the film, including shots from the production, images from the Life magazine story, and Hurt talking about the event directly to the camera.
Rappaport puts Seberg in context as one of an army of cinematic Joans — Ingrid Bergman, Falconetti, Alida Valli — through clips that show both Seberg’s freshness and youth and the beginnings of the exploitation of her image and her entrapment by it. Hurt talks in mock-horrific tones about the “curse of Joan,” how the role had all kinds of tragic repercussions in the lives of the actresses who played her. Rappaport’s leisurely digressions begin here — with Hurt describing things as seemingly tangential but fascinating as the fact that Falconetti’s grandson was the first person in France to die of AIDS in 1984.
Seberg’s next film was also for Preminger — Bonjour Tristesse. This time Rappaport gives her a kind of posthumous revenge against the dictatorial director. During filming, Preminger tormented her by threatening to replace her with Audrey Hepburn. In a startlingly clever scene, Rappaport shows an exchange between Seberg and David Niven, then reprises it by superimposing Hepburn’s head over Seberg’s. Hurt says she was secure that no 29-year-old (Hepburn) could play a 17-year-old. This is one of several comic superimpositions in the film, the funniest perhaps being when Hurt speculates that Barbra Streisand must have been one of the 3000 women who tried out for Saint Joan. In the scene of Joan burning at the stake, Rappaport replaces Seberg’s head with that of poor wailing Babs.
Seberg’s career was filled with disappointments — good roles that flopped at the box office (Lillith) and bad roles that succeeded (Airport). Her personal relationships were equally disappointing, but particularly with Romain Gary, whose female characters, she tells us, were invariably whores and nymphomaniacs. This revelation is part of a striking sequence that links her with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. Rappaport explores issues of sexism, etishism, and exploitation in this troika — Fonda’s marriage to Vadim resulting in fetish fantasies like Barbarella, Redgrave suffering (if not quite so vividly) at the hands of Tony Richardson, and of course Seberg enacting her husband’s lurid, sexist fantasies in a string of films. Seberg, speaking through Hurt, wonders why so many writers and directors insist on offering images of their wives as hookers and femme fatales.
Of course, Fonda, Redgrave, and Seberg had another crucial similarity — activist politics. And all suffered for it, says Seberg, though Fonda “was protected by her star image.” Redgrave’s work with the PLO decimated her roles, and she eventually passed into character parts. And Seberg? She was framed by the FBI, Hoover in particular, who leaked stories that she was pregnant by one of the Black Panthers, whose cause she fought for. When her child (the father was Romain Gary) died at birth, she insisted on a glass coffin, to show the world they had been duped. A series of nervous breakdowns followed that eventually killed Seberg in 1979 at the age of 40.
While the essentials of Seberg’s life are here for star-gazers, Rappaport uses her as a springboard for a discussion of larger issues. His combination of patchwork-quilt visuals, comic superimpositions, witty speculations on showbiz (“It’s called show business, not show art,” Seberg reminds us), and intriguing analysis of America’s fixation with the female face and body, makes for both imaginative biography and art.