Jean Seberg’s life was a maze of contradictions that defies straightforward retelling. A better approach is the one taken in Mark Rappaport’s documentary (or feature-length video essay) From the Journals of Jean Seberg, is to go meta on the project, with a mature Seberg herself, played by Mary Beth Hurt, offering sassy commentary on her life and work, along with a good measure of social and cinematic criticism. It’s reminiscent of Rappaport’s 1992 Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, infused a particular bite that comes from Seberg’s tragic life story.
Seberg, a native of Iowa, was chosen from among 18,000 hopefuls to star in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan. When cast, she was only 17 and had minimal acting experience, none of it in film. In contrast, Preminger was 52 and had already directed numerous films. Seberg was terrible in the part (substantial clips from which are included in this doc), but I’m inclined to place that failure on a poor choice of casting by the director, who should have known better (and could have replaced her, as has been known to happen). I also suspect Seberg’s confidence was not improved by the abuse Preminger directed at her on the set, which a fellow cast member described as sadistic (and that’s not even mentioning the fact that she was literally burned during the “burning at the stake” scene.) No matter—she was the one who took the blame, while Preminger’s career continued apace.
On the opposite side of the scales, Seberg at age 21 was unforgettable as Patricia in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À bout de soufflé). It’s one of the all-time great films, and extremely influential as an early example of the French New Wave (it was also Godard’s first feature film and co-star Jean-Paul Belmondo’s breakthrough film). That’s the Jean Seberg I choose to remember, because life is full of failures, while outstanding successes are hard to come by—so if you get even one of the latter, that’s more than most people can say. Seberg appeared in 32 other films during her career, but never approached the heights she reached in Breathless. Again, who cares? Delivering the kind of performance she did in Breathless is like a runner winning a gold medal in the Olympics, and there’s no point in dwelling on all the races that person didn’t win.
If the film business was abusive, ordinary life was not better. Seberg supported the Civil Rights movement, and made several contributions to the Black Panther Party. As a result, she was placed under surveillance by the FBI, and was harassed by the COINTELPRO program. One of their procedures was to plant false stories about her, such as that she was carrying a baby fathered not by her husband Romain Gary, but by a member of the Black Panther party. After giving birth prematurely to a child who died two days later, Seberg had an open casket at the funeral so everyone could see the baby had white skin. When Seberg died at age 40, a probable suicide, Gary accused the FBI of harassing her to an early death.
You don’t have to agree with Rappaport’s (or Hurt’s) interpretations of Seberg and her life to get something out of watching From the Journals of Jean Seberg. This film does not pretend to have the the final answer on any subject, and instead throws a lot of ideas together on screen to see what comes of it. Quite a bit, in my experience, and I’m not worrying too much about the bits that don’t work for me, because they may well be meaningful to someone else. | Sarah Boslaugh
From the Journals of Jean Seberg is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber. The disc also includes three short films by Mark Rappaport: “Anna/Nana/Nana/Anna” (26 min.), “Becoming Anita Ekberg” (17 min.), and “Debra Paget, for Example” (36 min.).