Mark Rappaport makes funny movies. Not funny in the ha-ha, laugh-out-loud sense; rather, funny in the oddball, hard-to-categorize sense. Rappaport calls his features "fictional autobiographies." Others have labeled 1992's Rock Hudson's Home Movies and 1995's From the Journals of Jean Seberg "imaginary monologues," "mock autobiographical documentaries," "blends of fiction, biography, and sociocultural meditation," "film essays," and "docu-biographies." Just as there were no home movies -- Hudson's or anyone else's -- in Rock Hudson's Home Movies, neither are there any journals in From the Journals of Jean Seberg. Instead Rappaport casts an actress (Mary Beth Hurt) who bears a physical resemblance to the titular subject as a sort of ghost narrator who analyzes film clips of the deceased screen star and then ties them together with a postmodern, revisionist slant that is 100 percent Rappaport.
In Rock Hudson's Home Movies, Rappaport garnered belly laughs by linking Hudson's performances -- as well as those of many of his costars -- to the celluloid hunk's closeted gayness. But in Seberg's case Rappaport seems more interested in eliciting tears than guffaws. While he makes no exaggerated claims for Seberg's talents as a thespian, he portrays her as a martyr -- the quintessential persecuted, misunderstood, tragic artist: Saint Jean.
Seberg's story needs little embellishment; her acting career went from a fairy-tale beginning to a nightmare ending. As a seventeen-year-old unknown, Seberg beat out 18,000 contenders -- including the young Barbra Streisand Afor the lead role in Otto Preminger's ballyhooed 1957 Joan of Arc biopic Saint Joan (based on the George Bernard Shaw play). Despite Preminger's gift for generating hype, the movie flopped. Seberg debuted at the top of the Hollywood ladder before most of her peers had graduated from high school, and then crashed in record time. But three years later she landed opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard's jittery French New Wave existential gangster flick Breathless, which went on to become an international sensation and has since become regarded as a cinema classic. (After seeing the film, thousands of young French women rushed out to their stylists to have their locks shorn "a la Seberg.")
Throughout the Sixties and early Seventies Seberg appeared in more than two dozen films. Her finest performance came opposite Warren Beatty in 1964's Lilith, although many more American moviegoers caught her lightweight supporting turn in 1970's Airport. The waiflike blonde married badly: first to a dashing young aspiring director (Franaois Moreuil), and later to second-rate-novelist-turned-third-rate-director Romain Gary, who was twice Seberg's 23 years when they exchanged vows. She unwisely agreed to appear in degrading roles in both men's embarrassingly bad films. Ah, love. Seberg's union to Gary being, well, French, both spouses entertained their share of extramarital couplings. Seberg's paramours included Clint Eastwood, with whom she dallied while filming 1969's Paint Your Wagon.
As a teenager back in Iowa, Seberg had joined the NAACP. As an internationally renowned movie star, she used her celebrity status to champion the cause of the Black Panthers. In the process she earned the contempt of reptilian FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who launched a sleazy character-assassination campaign against her. When Seberg became pregnant, Hoover's vile minions spread rumors that the father of her unborn child was a Black Panther. The harassment may have caused Seberg to deliver prematurely; the baby -- a girl named Nina, after Gary's mother's -- weighed only four pounds at birth and died two days later. The child was buried in a glass-covered coffin so that the world could see she was white. Nina's death accelerated Seberg's downward slide, which encompassed nervous breakdowns, alcoholism, drug addiction, and paranoid fantasies. She attempted to take her own life every year on the anniversary of her daughter's death.
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Although mysterious circumstances A her partially decomposed body was found in her car, which was parked on a Parisian side street A surround Seberg's death in September 1979, there appears little reason to question the official cause of death, which was listed as suicide. After a decade of trying, Seberg had finally rendered herself breathless. (Ex-husband Gary shot himself a few months later, leaving behind a note claiming his suicide had "nothing to do with Jean Seberg.")
Not much opportunity for humor in that story, and humor has been Rappaport's strong suit. Since he can't really mine the material for laughs, the filmmaker uses Seberg's sad life as a point of departure for a series of droll but never very compelling digressions. He muses on "the curse of Joan of Arc" (many actresses who assayed the role suffered career lows shortly thereafter) and contrasts the arc of Seberg's career/political activism with those of actresses Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. "Jane was the Vietnam War, Vanessa was the P.L.O., and I was the Black Panthers," notes Seberg (played with flat, cropped hair and a flat, clipped voice by Hurt, who was born in Seberg's hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa, and who resembles what the actress might have looked like had she lived a few years longer). Rappaport draws some amusing parallels among the three women, but offers little in the way of penetrating insight or groundbreaking observation.
Likewise, Rappaport uses the actress's Eastwood connection to riff on everything from Clint's lack of singing ability to the actor's strong, silent image. He suggests that differences in the way Eastwood's and Seberg's impassive screen personas were perceived ("only women are called 'mysterious' and 'sphinxlike'") illuminate larger inequities in the treatment of women in the movies. Like many of Rappaport's assertions, there may be some truth to the idea, but most of the evidence is circumstantial.
The trick to enjoying From the Journals of Jean Seberg lies in delighting in its wicked wit and cynical irreverence but not taking anything too seriously. The film may as well be summing up Rappaport's attitude toward probing any of his subject's deeper motivations when, in response to the obvious question of why Seberg allowed herself to be such a willing, passive victim for the men (from Preminger to Gary) who humiliated her even as they used her to make their movies, Hurt-as-Seberg shrugs, "Don't even ask why." Well, why not? Isn't that the point of "fictional autobiography" -- to free the filmmaker from getting bogged down in petty details and instead allow him to speculate about the deeper motives? By not even trying to burrow beneath the surface, Rappaport blows an excellent opportunity to get at Seberg's essence. He emerges as merely the latest in a long line of males exploiting her name to further his own directing career.