Mary Beth Hurt Embodies the Late Jean Seberg for Multilayered Documentary



It’s sad to fall asleep… It separates people. For actress Jean Seberg, though, who once uttered that very sentiment in her breakthrough film (well, one of them, anyhow), Breathless (1960) by Jean-Luc Godard, it’s worse than all that.  As of August 30, 1979, Ms. Seberg has resided well beyond the wall of sleep.  On that fateful date, at age forty, she took her own life.  And the screen lost one of its most enigmatic, sphinxlike personas.

Scratch that last bit.  In Mark Rappaport’s 1995 documentary profile of Jean Seberg, she tells us that, despite all the ink spilt regarding her compellingly blank nature, it was never inner mystery at all.  Rather, it was simply blankness.  Perhaps the result of being dead inside, which is perhaps the result of her acting career launching in the horrendous waters of an over-publicized Otto Preminger epic gone very wrong.  Seberg was only a naive seventeen-year-old midwestern girl when she was handpicked to play Joan d’Arc in the ill-fated Saint Joan(1957).  Seberg, in Rappaport’s film From the Journals of Jean Seberg, equates her subsequent treatment with her character’s own martyrdom.

Except, no she doesn’t.  The Seberg who hosts this absorbing and intrepid feature-length essay film is portrayed, directly addressing the camera, by actress Mary Beth Hurt.  Her words are written by the filmmaker; no actual Jean Seberg journals are shown or acknowledged.  Which means that while this portrait of the actress is entirely respectful and even venerating, it can never not be the words of someone else placed into her mouth posthumously.  And with the greater (and fully valid) points being made throughout in regard to the systemic treatment of actresses in her time (particular comparisons are made between Seberg and Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave), it also must be acknowledged that Rappaport is, to whatever degree, appropriating Jean Seberg.

For the real Jean Seberg, on the burnt heels of Saint Joan came rejection, manipulation, early marriage, divorce, and then another marriage- the latter of which was to writer Romain Gary, who was never above dramatizing their unfulfilling union.  Other major things happened in Seberg’s life after that (including a controversial affiliation with the Black Panthers), but more than once, she wound up in the movies Gary wrote (Birds of Peru [1968], Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! [1970], which spend considerable time under the analytical microscope here.  Per this engulfing conjecture, she couldn’t break free of the Gray connection, even post break-up.  It’s hard to know if she’s unhappy because she’s not free, or if she’s not free because she’s unhappy.

From the Journals of Jean Seberg arrives to DVD courtesy of Kino Classics.  One gets the impression that the documentary was never the portrait of A/V image clarity, as the transfer sports a minor murkiness that seems inherent.  The referenced film clips are of quite varying quality, which is to be expected of any film history film that predates the digital age.  That said, this disc is not lacking for reasonable vibrancy where vibrancy ought to be.  Also, the bonus features are nothing to snooze on.  Included are three relatively recent Rappaport shorts that fit very well alongside of the feature presentation:

The oldest of the three, and the shortest, is Becoming Anita Ekberg (2014, 17 minutes), tastefully chronicling the actress’s ascension from sex symbol to sex goddess in one simple dip in Trevi Fountain.  Then, there’s Debra Paget, For Example (2016, 37 minutes), which dares to eloquently wonder aloud why Ms. Paget (Hollywood parenthetical if there ever was one) and so many other actresses of her stature have failed to live on in the culture.  Finally, we have Anna/Nana/Nana/Anna (2019, 31 minutes), wherein Rappaport deconstructs the career of Russian actress Anna Sten, who, despite the best efforts of Samuel Goldwyn to make her a household name, that did not happen.  

Debra Paget, For Example

As evidenced with this trio of shorts, Rappaport’s fascination with actresses who dared to touch the flame but instead burned out runs deeply through his own career.  In comparison to the Seberg feature, the three shorts (or, video essays) compare favorably, if only for sidestepping the oddity of different actresses doing costumed impressions of their stars posthumously hosting their own examinations.  In the moment, Mary Beth Hurt as Seberg takes some getting used to, and, after the fact, a degree of resignation.  Like Patricia Franchini of Breathless, Seberg herself might’ve been afraid of getting old.  She tragically sidestepped such a fate by exchanging it for another: To become immortal… and then die.  As for the rest of us, we ought not sleep away From the Journals of Jean Seberg.