Today, April 10, is Delphine Seyrig’s birthday. Born in 1932, this unforgettable presence in French – and world – cinema would have been 91 years old. We salute her by reposting frequent Bright Lights contributor Dan Callahan’s penetrating profile first published in 2009.
* * *
“Seyrig is capable of stopping an entire film with one decisive physical gesture, one smile, one glare, one sound from her smoky, murmuring voice.”
“I’m not an apparition,” insists Delphine Seyrig in Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (1968), “I’m a woman.” While we would like to give her the benefit of the doubt, there can be no denying that Seyrig is the most ghostly of actresses, haunting her own movies with a druggy, dazed quality over which she placed a severe intellectual patina. Something as simple as a different hair color makes her an entirely different person; in the Truffaut film, she’s a platinum blond, and so delicately tender with Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) that you can almost smell the scent of her perfume as she makes his romantic fantasy of her come true, if only for a few hours. At one point on their fateful afternoon, before they make love, she remembers the words of her dying father, who told her “people are wonderful.” Seyrig creates so vivid a picture of benevolent, mysterious beauty for Doinel and for us that she briefly brings Truffaut to the level of a life-embracing Jean Renoir. A phantom of the cinema and truly ageless, Seyrig is capable of stopping an entire film with one decisive physical gesture, one smile, one glare, one sound from her smoky, murmuring voice.
She turns up in some movies quite unexpectedly, like her debut, Pull My Daisy (1959), a short featuring Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg and other assorted Beat artists goofing around a Lower East Side loft. In the midst of their tiresome horseplay, Seyrig looks stranded and angry, and she brings a Viveca Lindfors-like, acting-class intensity to the flimsy film, transfiguring it with her mere presence. She had her first real impact, though, in two movies for Alain Resnais, Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Muriel (1963), which made her one of the most tantalizing figures of the art cinema of that time. In the famously inscrutable Marienbad, she wears harsh, heavy make-up and dark hair, and her sense of preoccupation holds the entire non-narrative together; there’s a palpable rage bubbling beneath her various commanding facial expressions in Marienbad, and even a madwoman quality when she opens her hard face to smile slightly. Already, Seyrig was showing signs of complex feminist yearning, and her real-life passion for feminism activates all of her creations, even something as outlandish as her Dietrich-like lesbian vampire in the enjoyably trashy midnight movie Daughters of Darkness (1971).
Seyrig offered us the most extreme of her spooky transformations in the pretentious Muriel, making herself into a sort of grown-up Mouchette, a goosey, grey-haired, physically awkward woman continually smoking cigarettes, her chin jutting forward protectively; her face has a childish, questioning look in this film, as if she’s demanding the reason for some long-ago humiliation, and she has the over-sensitivity of a frozen-in-time adolescent. Seyrig takes a lot of risks here, especially with her comic walk (it looks as if her legs are buckling with each step she takes), but she hews closely to the pathetically unaltered heart and hopes of this rather embarrassing woman. If in Marienbad her face always seems to be asking, “Yes?” in an imperious way, in Muriel her face keeps returning back to the unanswerable question, “Why?” Very much a Method actress, Seyrig created a voluminous back story for every character she played and sought a complete kind of osmosis with her women. “The act of moving, say, a cigarette lighter doesn’t interest me in itself,” she said. “What interests me is how to move it as the character would.”
The Resnais films opened up fruitful possibilities for Seyrig; she worked twice for Joseph Losey, in small roles, and twice for Luis Bunuel, bringing her fastidious high style to one of his late masterpieces, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), playing a spacey blond matron whose motto seems to be “Keep on smiling!” In Daughters of Darkness, she speaks so softly it’s as if she’s afraid of bruising the words as they trail out of her lipstick-red mouth, and her body keeps tipping to one side and then another, theatrically revealing her need for fresh blood. The film is pure camp, but Seyrig took it seriously enough to rewrite some of her dialogue in the later scenes so that she eventually starts spouting feminist rhetoric to her chief victim (Danielle Ouimet). Above all, Seyrig seemed self-possessed, yet she wandered helplessly into two commercial American films, The Day of the Jackal (1973) and The Black Windmill (1974), in which she had brief sex-object roles that required her to get gratuitously naked but gave her no room to create. It’s distressing to see an actress of Seyrig’s caliber in these degrading parts, and it’s almost as if she consciously or unconsciously chose them to highlight the need for feminist insurrection.
Bouncing back with a vengeance, Seyrig took three roles in 1975 that enhanced her prestige, and one of these roles ensures her immortality. She was back to the nouveau roman beat in Marguerite Duras’ maddening India Song, playing an unstable flirt of an ambassador’s wife whose loose, arm-swinging walk gets across the listless sexiness of imperialistic decay. Duras burns a lot of incense and asks a lot for very little; denied direct dialogue, Seyrig incarnates a kind of weak-willed, supine sensuality, clarifying the film’s vagueness with her out-of-it charisma. In the odd, confused Aloise, a biopic of an artist who might or might not have been mentally ill, Seyrig gently sketches an unnerving portrait of barely perceptible derangement. She’s so attuned to this woman’s often-sexual frustration that she makes her plight very moving, even when asked to lip-synch to an aria in the woods or expose her breasts to a doctor. More and more, Seyrig moved toward female directors and specifically female themes, and this urge led her directly to the ordeal and triumph of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a mesmerizing three hour and twenty minute descent into a domestic heart of darkness. It isn’t a film so much as a trance, or an Edward Hopper painting that moves.
A widowed housewife and anal-retentive loner, Seyrig’s Jeanne is charted over three days as she cooks, cleans, cares for her son and turns one trick in the late afternoon to keep them afloat (from 5-5:30pm, according to Akerman). Her movements are precise, proud and electrically tense with the effort of holding herself together and ignoring all that has to be ignored; when her son mentions lovemaking, she counsels that this act is “merely a detail.” We learn that her late husband was “ugly,” and that she perversely married him only after his business declined; she also says that she once had a job for “horrible pay.” The anxiety barely submerged under everything Jeanne does is always there, and Seyrig embodies this anxiety second-by-second, but she doesn’t show it to you in any “acted” gestures. This is a long way from her work in Muriel, which, impressive as it is, is clearly a detailed “performance.” Her Jeanne Dielman is work on so high a level that it transcends the usual criteria of gestural acting; it’s work that could make face-pulling Meryl Streep weep. In fact, on this Everest height, even the great Jeanne Moreau could seem like a tricky exhibitionist.
There’s an enormously revealing on-set documentary included in Criterion’s recent, essential DVD release of Jeanne Dielman that lets us see just how resistant Seyrig was to Akerman’s style, at first. When Akerman tells her that she must move slower, she asks why, and Akerman doesn’t really give her an answer. “That’s not good enough,” says Seyrig, waving a cigarette in a fancy holder. “Find a reason.” Then, gradually, we see her bravely giving in to Akerman’s point of view, letting go of her Actors Studio needs and slowly sinking into Jeanne’s frieze-like stasis. Just one staccato, indicative gesture from Seyrig would spoil the whole movie, and this is part of the film’s suspense; she never falters, even while Jeanne herself begins to collapse in slow motion. Seyrig gets so close to the way day-to-day life is actually lived that she isn’t really “acting” finally; that’s how far she got.
Jeanne Dielman is a woman at war with time, and she clings to her habits desperately. What really drives Jeanne crazy is that nothing can ever remain exactly the same; buttons fall off coats and can’t be replaced, shoes wear out, someone takes her favored seat in a café. We see the rigidity of her routines on the first day, and we become so immersed in them that when they start to go haywire on the second day, something as small as dropping a spoon on the floor has a momentous impact. Jeanne is alone for most of the film, and Seyrig never lets us see that she knows a camera is watching her; she (merely?) exists. This is radical work mainly because it takes place almost entirely in the realm of the unconscious, and the smallest quasi-expression on her face gives us the impression of half-thoughts, half-emotions, a general emptiness and daily sluggishness. This woman longs for complacency and even achieves it for brief moments, but on that second day, when her client takes longer than usual and her potatoes burn, Seyrig starts to blur Jeanne’s stoicism, and when she sits down to peel some more potatoes, she begins to disintegrate before our eyes. Akerman has said that Jeanne experienced her first orgasm with the second client, and this intrusion of disconnected pleasure is not something she is prepared to deal with.
Jeanne holds her facial muscles in a mask that keeps slipping as she moves into her fateful third day. Men laugh at her as she tries to get a stamp from a closed post office. At her kitchen table, she almost knocks a milk bottle over and rights it just in time. She tries to drink her coffee, and it tastes so sour she has to throw it out. A neighbor’s baby yowls and yowls and cannot be consoled. Then, on her back with her third john, she looks prim, unyielding; she doesn’t even take her clothes off for her clients. Catastrophically, Jeanne has another orgasm, of sorts, with this third client. As we watch her sitting before her mirror afterwards, tucking her shirt neatly into her skirt, it’s possible to feel that her need for order might prevail and that she doesn’t have it in her to take drastic action, but this would be to underestimate the size of her repressed fury; when this fury finally comes out, it looks strangely ineffectual, as if she was just squashing an annoying bug rather than killing a man with a pair of scissors. Overcome with a kind of Zen calm, Jeanne finally sits at her dining room table with blood on her hands. For Jeanne Dielman, there will be no more men, and no more cooking responsibilities. Having run this marathon, Seyrig gives Jeanne a tranquil smile of blessed relief.
Jeanne Dielman was the summit of Seyrig’s career, and it dwarfs the rest of her work; then again, it dwarfs the work of all other actors, too. Her allegiance to female directors did not always work out so well, as evidenced by her participation as a stylish figurehead in the interminable films of Ulrike Ottinger. She worked again for Akerman, most touchingly in the shopping mall musical Golden Eighties (1986), where she convincingly sold optimism as she did for Truffaut, while Jeanne Dielman stared at the wall of her prison cell. Seyrig died of lung cancer in 1990, like a real woman, not an apparition. The Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of her work in 2002, and even screened oddities like the Polish On the Move (1979), which seems to be a film about Seyrig’s awful perm, and The Garden That Tilts (1974), in which she claims to read novels “for ten hours at a time.” At a symposium on Seyrig, another cerebral cinema goddess, Tilda Swinton, remembered meeting her at a women’s study conference and wandering through an art gallery with her. “She was so beautiful,” Swinton said, “but that wasn’t the most important thing about her. She knew she was beautiful, and she’d stare at you as if to say, ‘alright, have a look,’ but then she drew you in much, much deeper. . . .”