Goodbye, normal Jean

A mix of bitter biography and film history, From the Journals of Jean Seberg takes on Hollywood

The standard definition of "documentary" seems inadequate to describe Mark Rappaport's intriguing new nonfiction film, From the Journals of Jean Seberg. It doesn't subscribe to the usual documentary conventions, coming closer in style and structure to performance art.

Although it features clips from Seberg's films, it also has plenty of footage from other actresses' movies: Jane Fonda in Barbarella, Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot, even Clint Eastwood playing Dirty Harry. Although it contains narration, the narrator isn't a disembodied voice, but Mary Beth Hurt performing as Seberg--walking around an abstract set of black-and-white photographs and movie stills like some ghostly echo of the real Seberg. Hurt represents who Seberg might be today if she hadn't killed herself in 1979 at age 40. And for a film biography, Rappaport's Journals doesn't include a single snapshot from Seberg's childhood (not that she had much of one; her film career as a leading lady started at age 17.) Seberg certainly isn't one of the enduring stars of the cinema, but, as Hurt states during her performance, "Most of my movies were mediocre, but I was in one or two great ones, and I realize now that even that's a lot." She was the Elizabeth Berkley of her day, a celebrity actress and magazine cover girl, popular for the promise of success--that is, before the public saw her films, and that promise proved fleeting.

Back in the waning days of the studio system, when talent searches caused as great a stir in the heartland as a Beatles concert would half a dozen years later, Seberg was the lucky winner of Otto Preminger's casting gimmick for Joan of Arc in the disastrous film adaptation of Shaw's play Saint Joan. Despite universal criticism for her performance, Seberg continued to be employed regularly until the end of her life, usually in European films like Godard's classic Breathless, but also in splashy productions like Paint Your Wagon and Airport.

In Rappaport's fluid and thematically dense film, Seberg's primary function in movie history is as the actress who took the baton from Marilyn Monroe, the last of the great starlets, becoming the quintessential "modern movie star," affectless and androgynous. If Monroe was, as Olivier called her, a "professional amateur," then Seberg was an amateur professional--an ingenue who never "got it," the perpetual dupe of the system.

The bitterness of the screenplay extends beyond the confines of Seberg's life. It's no happenstance that she speaks from the grave, and so frankly. The brutal candor of the narration is a form of auto de fe, a self-flagellating diatribe setting the scene for her suicide.

After her death, Seberg's husband, novelist Romain Gary, left his final indignity to Jean, a suicide note reading, "Nothing to do with Jean Seberg. Lovers of broken hearts kindly asked to look elsewhere." It's difficult not to think of Seberg's life and memory as a perverse, prolonged rape. This movie acts as a kind of exorcism of these demons.

Although Rappaport portrays Seberg as a breed of victim, he does so without sentiment, realizing she was out of her depth from the outset: "It was no fault of mine, but I was woefully miscast [as Joan]. It was an error in judgment that nothing I could do could overcome." But when all is said and done, she also wasn't much of an actress. Her face didn't have the depth and character of a Garbo, or even a Monroe. When Rappaport edits her expressionless gaze into a sequence of emotional scenes, he doesn't require any commentary to make his point: She was a vacuum, a shill, a symbol--not a person. You don't read anything into her face, because there's no interpretation suggested by it. The mystery is that there's no mystery at all: She's a sphinx without a riddle.

Seberg's life, while at the center of the film, is merely the vehicle through which Rappaport makes his withering critiques of Hollywood in general. He holds a mirror up to the film industry and sees a vampire's reflection. Within his scathing gun sights are not only Jean's films, but Otto Preminger, Brigitte Bardot, the Black Panthers, Roger Vadim, sexism and misogyny, Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar Hoover, all of Seberg's ex-husbands and lovers, and the way her political activism was less accepted than the even more radical posturing of Fonda and Redgrave.

As important to the success of the film as Rappaport's script and images is Hurt's performance. A stage-trained actress, Hurt delivers her lines with the cadences of a live performance, and her weary reading makes as much of a comment on Seberg's life as the words themselves.

From the Journals of Jean Seberg works on many levels, and it's probably a pointless exercise to try too hard to categorize it. The movie is sociology and biography, fact and opinion, film criticism, and a lesson in the art and history of cinema. So many ideas swirl about within its lean, compact frame that when it ends, the net effect is excitement about movies--not just Seberg's, but movies in general. I kept thinking of comparisons to Frances Farmer's tragic life, and decided to re-rent Frances. Journals is the kind of movie you should see with a friend when you know you'll have time to go out for coffee afterward and talk it out, pausing for a moment, perhaps, to think that there, but for the grace of God, go I. We owe that to Jean; at least, we owe her that.

From the Journals of Jean Seberg screens April 22 at 9:10 p.m.

 
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