The Review/ Feature/
The Solitude of Jean Seberg
How Godard’s Breathless star was hounded to her death by the FBI
Les hautes solitudes screens on Friday, February 16 as part of the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective In the Shadow of Love: The Cinema of Philippe Garrel.
Philippe Garrel’s Les hautes solitudes opens with shots of the director’s muse, the German-born singer and Warhol superstar Nico, who seems to be daydreaming, her head laying over her arms. While there is no sequential logic between these shots and the ones that follow, Garrel’s editing makes it seem as if Nico is dreaming of a very particular person: the American actress Jean Seberg, who achieved international fame as the star of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and was, by the time Garrel filmed her in her Paris apartment in the 1970s, a tired, melancholic woman in her late thirties, nursing her pain with booze and pills.
Watching the visual link between Nico and Seberg in this sequence of shots is akin to seeing a Garrelian genealogy taking shape before our eyes — as if Seberg were the matriarch of all the fragile beings that would populate the French filmmaker’s world, or perhaps as if every fragile being in that universe was a reflection or a variation of the American actress.
While this would be the only film that Garrel and Seberg would make together, one cannot help but think that this silent, black-and-white, impossible-to-categorize 1974 feature holds the key to the director’s cinema, and, more specifically, to the motif of suicide that haunts it. In Les hautes solitudes, one finds the primal Garrelian scene: Seberg taking a combination of pills and what we can only infer to be alcohol, her determined gestures making it appear as if she is trying to end her life before the camera’s gaze. She is stopped by the film’s other beautiful and mysterious being, the American actress Tina Aumont, and the story has it that Garrel stopped shooting momentarily, so convinced was he that Seberg was actually trying to commit suicide.
The director’s intuition was not totally off. If Seberg’s gestures seemed so authentic, it was because they had become almost ritualized for the actress, who by that time had tried to end her life multiple times. Five years after the release of Les hautes solitudes, she would be found dead in a car in Paris, an apparent suicide.
One is not born a Garrelian being, however — something must have happened to Seberg to generate the pain and sadness we see etched on her face in Les hautes solitudes. In many respects, the trajectory of Seberg’s tragic life is not so different from those of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, or a number of others who found fame early; how many tales have we heard of young actors suffering from mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction and the like? Less common, however, are those actors who are tormented for their political convictions or affiliations. Just as Garrel’s intensely personal, dreamlike cinema had its roots in the cultural and political upheavals of May ’68, so too did the private torment that precipitated Seberg’s end derive from a political source: today’s internet “outrage culture” and its armies of trolls are nothing compared to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
There are times in Les hautes solitudes when Seberg’s beautifully sad mask is graced by a smile, which serves as a kind of time machine, taking us back to her heyday. Her beauty mark has faded, the iconic garçonne haircut is no more, but that smile is what remains after everything is ruined. It was a Midwestern smile, a smile that neutralizes and reassures, or one that could be deployed as a defense against interviewers, particularly when they were cold, voyeuristic and insensitive.
Born in 1938 in Marshalltown, Iowa, Jean Seberg always considered acting to be her calling. Though she was first and foremost a theatre geek, her breakthrough would come in front of the camera. In 1956, director Otto Preminger conducted an expansive search to find a young actress to play Joan of Arc in his adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. From the thousands of girls who auditioned, he picked Seberg, who was then an 17-year-old unknown with only one season of summer stock theatre behind her, but with a face seemed made for the screen. However, the Cinderella story took a darker turn when the film became both a critical and commercial failure; Seberg later recalled how negative reviews were sent from New York to her residence in Nice, as if she were the principal factor of the film’s failure.
Watching Saint Joan today, one can understand why Seberg’s performance was judged so harshly at the time. Compared to Falconetti’s otherworldly torment in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc or the pristine nobility of Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc, Seberg is playful, overzealous, and — crucially — immature. In her performance, Seberg shows she understands something that no other screen Joan had before: that, no matter the greatness of her accomplishments, Joan was a teenager in armour. Seberg captures all that is both touching and grotesque about Joan, and there is something very modern about the way she moves onscreen.
Clearly, Preminger had seen something in this untried young actress that others at the time could not, and despite the fiasco of Saint Joan, he continued his collaboration with Seberg by casting her as the world-weary teenage schemer in his adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse a year later.
The young French critics and soon-to-be filmmakers who would shortly be known as the nouvelle vague worshipped Preminger, and they were ecstatic about both Bonjour Tristesse and its young star. In his review of the film, François Truffant put into words that ineffable quality that made Seberg so singular: “her boyish malice.” Truffaut’s then friend and colleague Godard was attuned to that malice as well, so it is little surprise that he sought out Seberg to take the role of the duplicitous Patricia Franchini, the love interest of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s charmingly amoral hoodlum Michel, in his debut feature.
The actress’ presence in Breathless embodies the New Wave’s relationship with American cinema: to have Seberg in one’s film was, in a way, to have a bit of Preminger in there as well. (As Godard declared, Seberg’s Patricia was just a continuation of her Cécile in Bonjour Tristesse.) But crucially, Godard looks at Seberg differently than did Preminger, and the actress is therefore able to express herself differently: where Preminger made her into different but equally distant objects of desire, in Breathless, she can finally be sexy.
It was both Seberg’s good luck and bad fortune that she parted ways with Preminger, as she escaped that potentially co-dependent artistic relationship and set out to work with different directors in different genres. She made her first foray into comedy with The Mouse That Roared in 1959, playing opposite Peter Sellers; a few years after Breathless, she played the title role of a schizophrenic patient in Lilith, in which she co-starred with Warren Beatty and Peter Fonda.
While her Breathless stardom kept Seberg in the public eye and in high-profile films throughout the 1960s, there was no pattern or coherence to the roles she played. What made Seberg’s Patricia so captivating was that it was a fusion of Godard’s misogynistic conception of the character and Seberg’s strong-willed refusal to adhere to that vision: famously, Seberg refused Godard’s direction that Patricia should rifle the dead Michel’s pockets after she betrays him to the police in the film’s finale. Following Breathless, Seberg jumped from genre to genre with ease, and while her own history of mental illness might have drawn her to specific roles (including Cécile and Lilith), there is little sense of her self in most of these performances.
Though most of her films and her life — including her marriages with French lawyer François Moreuil and novelist Romain Gary — were made in Europe, Seberg never really left America. More specifically, she became actively involved in the Civil Rights movement, providing financial aid to such groups as the NAACP and the Black Panther Party. Her activism brought her to the attention of Hoover’s FBI, whose covert COINTELPRO program was at that time targeting prominent civil rights supporters with acts of intimidation, harassment, and disinformation designed to “neutralize” them.
In Seberg’s case, the FBI tapped into old racial fantasies and fears by fabricating a story claiming that the actress was expecting a child from a leader of the Black Panthers (the child, who died two days after its birth, was actually fathered by a Mexican student revolutionary), and spent years surveilling and harassing her. This malicious persecution had long-term effects on Seberg’s mental health and well-being, and one can only conclude that it played a major role in her tragic end. (The FBI finally publicly admitted its harassment of the actress the week after her death in 1979.)
In an interview with the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles, Garrel described Les hautes solitudes as an assemblage of rushes from a film that didn’t exist; that film, simply put, is the later years of Seberg’s life, the life that she would never be able to lead. Barely out of her adolescence when she was suddenly presented to the world as a movie star, Seberg here seems to want to put all that behind her; exhausted, unmade, she is looking somewhere beyond the camera, looking for peace.