Mark Rappaport's venturesome "From the Journals of Jean Seberg" imagines that the ill-fated actress, an apparent suicide in 1979 at age 40, has risen from the grave to tell us the story of her roller coaster life. Mary Beth Hurt plays Seberg, who narrates her experiences within the interlocking contexts of feminism, politics and cinema as we watch a variety of clips from her films and from those of others.
It would seem that Seberg has become an astringent, reflective intellectual in the afterlife, and such is the force of Hurt's presence and Rappaport's intelligence that the result is as amazingly persuasive as it is provocative. You're left with the feeling that this is what Seberg would have said about herself were she still alive to say it and had she possessed the ability to express herself so brilliantly. The first of the film's many ironies is that Hurt, who bears a striking resemblance to Seberg, is surely a better actress than Seberg ever was, and that Seberg most likely was not as articulate and reflective as Rappaport has presented her to be.
As Hurt's Seberg remarks, most moviegoers who were around at the time will remember director Otto Preminger's highly publicized search for a young actress to star in his 1957 "St. Joan." A small-town Iowa teenager with only summer stock and school play experience, Seberg beat out a reported 18,000 applicants for the part. At this point Rappaport identifies and compares, via clips, Seberg's callow Joan with those of glamorous Alida Valli and Ingrid Bergman and the peerless Falconetti of Dreyer's "Passion of Joan of Arc." He sets in motion the exploration of two ideas: why the movies love to make martyrs of women on the screen, and how they go about doing it through imagery and montage.
"St. Joan" was a critical and commercial disaster, but the next Preminger-Seberg collaboration, a 1958 adaptation of Francoise Sagan's international bestseller "Bonjour Tristesse," in which Seberg played a superficially sophisticated teenager dangerously jealous of one of her playboy-father's lovers, remains one of her and her director's best films, although it was not a box-office success. Yet when Jean-Luc Godard cast Seberg in his landmark "Breathless," he told her that she could consider her role a continuation of her character in "Bonjour": a shallow American in Paris who becomes involved with a petty Bogie-worshiping hood (Jean-Paul Belmondo).
Seberg would never equal this New Wave masterpiece, and for the rest of her short life would alternate between working in Europe and Hollywood, where full-fledged stardom would elude her. Meanwhile, she would follow "Breathless" with the impressive "Lilith," but its notion of a woman driven mad by frustrated sexuality would be echoed by a pair of truly silly and degrading films for her second and most important husband, novelist Romain Gary.
In the '60s, like Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, Seberg would become a political activist, supportive of the Black Panthers. This attracted the attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and Rappaport asserts that Seberg was devastated when the late Joyce Haber, then a columnist for The Times, published a blind item intimating that Seberg was pregnant from an affair with a Black Panther. When Seberg, who was in fact pregnant with Gary's child, delivered prematurely, her baby daughter died four days later. Already beset by drinking and drug problems and a history of suicide attempts, Seberg further deteriorated, and when found dead in her Renault on a Paris street, was clutching a bottle of barbiturates.
What are we to make of all of this? Although Rappaport makes a plethora of connections between the power of cinema, the status of women, the role of politics in our lives and the eerie interplay between Seberg's life and art, he rightly leaves us to draw conclusions.
The most obvious is that Seberg probably would have been better off, and still alive, had Preminger never discovered her. The second is that Seberg lacked not only the security of a famous family name, but also the talent, of the actresses Fonda and Redgrave. Yet there are in the movies instances when a look, an attitude, a personality can count for far more than acting ability, and it is entirely possible that time, the ultimate critic, will rank "Breathless" better than anything Fonda or Redgrave ever did.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film has complex adult themes and some blunt language.
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'From the Journals of Jean Seberg'
Mary Beth Hurt: Jean Seberg
A Planet Pictures release. Writer-director-editor Mark Rappaport. Cinematographer Mark Daniels. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 848-3500.