Film Scouts Reviews

"From the Journals of Jean Seberg"

by Karen Jaehne

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It is important to qualify this "autobiography" of the unforgetable actress Jean Seberg as an cinematic essay by the incisive experimental filmmaker Mark Rappaport. He works in a style known in filmmaking as "camera-stylo," or "using the camera as a stylus or pen." There is less experiment here than reportage, and he finds a lesson in the life of the actress that reflects on a tragic intersection of celebrity and politics with sobering effect. Rappaport has produced the best documentary ever made about an actress; Mary Beth Hurt brings to it a heartbreaking honesty.

Mary Beth Hurt is an actress adept at working from the inside out and she lends witty self-knowledge to her role as the ghost of Jean Seberg. She comments on-from the point of view of-Seberg while we are shown clips from Seberg's turbulent private life and even more turbulent career. Rappaport turns his research into a rich kaleidoscope of talented people looking for love.

In a marvelous sequence, we sift through the candidates for the role of Saint Joan in Otto Preminger's 1957 film of that name, a role that was to launch Jean Seberg-at least onto the cover of Life magazine. Mary Beth Hurt/Ms. Seberg wonders why Vanessa Redgrave, who was burned at the stake in "Camelot," didn't get the role. Or Jane Fonda who won an Oscar for "Klute." Or Barbra Streisand, all of whom, auditioned.

There's a "why me?" quality to this portrait that could have doomed it. When a famous person asks "what makes me so special?" ordinarily the answer is, "because you were the most photogenic and very lucky." But Rappaport casts the question not with the phoney modesty of Academy Award-thanks or in the dumb-broad fashion of Little Annie Fanny; he looks into the system to examine the gauntlet through which an aspiring actress must run. He discovers how she navigates the Scylla and Charybdis of Fame and Privacy.

Rappaport looks at the other roles Jean Seberg played and how her particular American innocence was greedily consumed by the French. "Bonjour Tristesse" convinced Jean-Luc Godard that she was the only candidate for the American in "Breathless," a film that became synonymous with the French New Wave. Anybody who has been to college has seen Jean Seberg's wide-eyed, snappy gal peddling the Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysee.

Not many people know, however, that she later appeared in another dozen French movies and was hounded by the long arm of the FBI. Experts on deviance, Herbert Hoover's little thugs dubbed her a "sex pervert," because she had been involved with a Black Panther. In 1979, Seberg committed suicide, and (I recall) many of us suspected foul play; Watergate was recent, and it was whispered that the FBI or CIA had done her in.

Of many astounding things brought back into the light of memory by this movie, perhaps the scenes from "Paint Your Wagon" are the most thigh-slapping. Here Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg, both big European stars stepping gingerly onto their home shores, found comfort in each other's arms. (See Clint sing!)

Seberg's romantic and marital history is the backbone of the film. She had a hard time being loved. Whether this is an aspect of her own self-denial or the upshot of misogynistic men unable to deal with her sex appeal, she was not strong enough to resist what appears to have been a devastating masochistic marriage with Romain Gary, a sometime writer/filmmaker who used her and their relationship as the raw material for tawdry movies.

The moral of the story is that Seberg deserved better than she got, but then, she was a free spirit. Europe loved her for it; Hollywood despaired of her. Her career foundered somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. Jean Seberg's failure was the failure of freedom. And it touches us all-if not at the movies, then where we live.

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