Jean Seberg’s Look on Screen: A Marker of Modernity

Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in “À bout de souffle”, 1960 | Rialto Pictures, Studio Canal


A preppy in Paris.

After her debut in Hollywood, with her first role, at age nineteen, in Otto Preminger’s 1957 Saint Joan, and another Preminger movie a year later, Bonjour Tristesse, this one filmed in France (both poorly received), Iowa-born Jean Seberg appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s directorial debut, À bout de souffle (1960). Breathless came after the first films of other three emerging New Wave film-makers, Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955), Claude Chabrol’s Le beau serge (1958) and François Truffaut’s Les 400 coups (1959), but, with Truffaut as screenwriter and Chabrol as technical advisor, it was Godard’s film that marked the definitive breakthrough towards a new language of cinema, one that went against any cinematic conventions, and brought in a new aesthetic, innovative techniques, bold and vigorous narrative, improvised dialogue, leading us through the streets of Paris, mingling actors with passers-by, in a frenetic and realistic pace similar to that of a modern day reporter. A Paris where two lovers are overwhelmed by fate and where the image of Jean Seberg as Patricia Franchini strolling down the Champs-Elysées in The New York Herald Tribune t-shirt became an everlasting style headline and the star of the French New Wave.

After À bout de souffle, Jean Seberg remained in France for much of her adult life and continued to make films both in Hollywood (Lilith, 1964, was one of them, in which she starred opposite Warren Beatty) and Europe (Échappement libre, from 1964, which reunited her with Jean-Paul Belmondo, or Claude Chabrol’s La route de Corinthe, 1967). She corresponded with André Malraux, wore Yves Saint Laurent and played poker with Françoise Sagan, as Rex Reed wrote in a 1969 profile, alluding to a Parisian life revolving around beatniks, art, culture and existentialism. She seemed to have taken on the role from François Sagan, whose heroine she played in Bonjour Tristesse, who breathed fresh air in the hyper-bourgeois France of the 1950s, becoming a symbol of Beat culture cool and postwar affluence, and carry it on through the 1960s.

In a rare interview, which shows Jean (nonchalant, self-assured, natural and fluent in French) in her apartment in Paris, she talked about her rich cultural life she was exposed to living there, where she could easily socialize with artists from so many different fields, but made it clear that she was still an American and that she didn’t want anyone to believe that she was in exile or an expat. However, she stressed out how much she valued that the French respected her privacy as opposed to what her life as a 21-year-old movie star would have looked like in Hollywood. She may have been very young, but she seemed to already have found her voice and was set out to be a marker of modernity.

Jean Seberg makes the subject for the new film Seberg, a political thriller directed by Benedict Andrews and with Kristen Stewart in the lead role, that focuses on Seberg’s post-À bout de souffle life, when she suffered years of harassment and surveillance from the FBI for supporting the Black Panthers in the late 1960s, which presumably lead to her death in 1979, classified as probable suicide. I have my reservations about the film, and Peter Bradshaw makes a very clear reasoning in The Guardian: “But this film also finds it necessary, in the apparent interests of liberal balance, to invent a fictional young FBI officer Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) who is decent, sensitive, appalled at what his organisation is doing to Seberg and makes a muddled attempt to warn her. But why? Why invent this character at all? Why make the travails of this made-up man dramatically equivalent to Seberg’s very real ordeal? It is a strange contrivance and the film never quite rings true.”

Therefore, instead of looking at Jean Seberg-the character, I am focusing on Jean Seberg’s characters, from Golden Age to Nouvelle Vague. They all ring true. It’s these stories she should be remembered by.

Jean Seberg in “Bonjour Tristesse”, 1958 | Wheel Productions

In Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse, Jean Seberg is the star of the film. “When he organised the ‘Bonjour Tristesse Competition’, Preminger was not looking for Cécile, he was looking for Jean Seberg,” François Truffaut remarked in his book, The Films in My Life, clearly stating his preference for the film and its leading lady over François Sagan’s book and character. “And, when he had found her, it wasn’t a question of whether she was worthy of Cécile, but whether Cécile was worthy of being made real by Jean Seberg.” It was Seberg whom Truffaut considered that Preminger wanted to set in motion, place in her setting, bring out her strong points.

In Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Jean Seberg plays Cécile, the amoral teenage daughter of rich playboy Raymond (David Niven). They are vacationing on the French Riviera and their free-going, pleasure-seeking existence is threatened by her father’s sudden plan to marry his late wife’s best friend, Anne (Deborah Kerr). Cécile plans to drive Anne away, but the plot takes an unexpected turn. George Périnal’s beautiful use of colour affords a striking contrast between the sun-drenched hues of summer in the South of France (the sumptuous villa where the action is mainly set belonged to Pierre Lazareff, the prominent French newspaper editor, and his wife, Hélène Lazareff, the founder of Elle magazine, who made it available to Preminger for filming) and the present, a Paris shot in a chilly black and white – the idyllic holiday compared to the dark reality of the consequences of their vacation.

The clothes dress up Seberg’s character only too well: fresh and striking. Her “wide-open blue eyes” have “a glint of boyish malice,” wrote Truffaut, and “when Jean Seberg is on screen you can’t look at anything else. Her every movement is graceful, each glance is precise. The shape of her head, her silhouette, her walk, everything is perfect; this kind of sex appeal hasn’t been seen on the screen. It is designed, controlled, directed to the nth degree by her director.”

She is a tomboy, a sensuous tomboy. Shirts, men’s shirts to be more exact, are the essential piece of Cécile’s summer wardrobe. She wears shirts stolen from her dad’s wardrobe, a hint at her ties with her father whom she doesn’t want to let go of, and she has a passion for denim shirts, paired with colourful one-piece bathing suits. Her carefree summer look is completed by Breton and gingham tops, boat-neck tops, cropped trousers, shorts slit on the side, white ballerina shoes and flat sandals. When we see her in Paris, she looks completely different dressed in a very elegant, sophisticated black cocktail dress (by Givenchy, who designed part of Seberg’s wardrobe for the film, while costume designer Hope Bryce was responsible for the rest of her outfits). True, so is the location and occasion, but the strikingly different looks mark something much deeper, the loss of innocence that occurred after that fateful summer, the theme of the child-woman and her sadness at approaching adulthood. That’s the film’s narrative, which is so effectively previewed from the very beginning, in the lyrical title sequence of Saul Bass that “exclusively captures the elusive delicacy as well as the sadness that lies at the heart of the film,” writes design historian Pat Kirkham in the book Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design.

Truffaut interestingly said that “If Preminger were making Bonjour Tristesse today” (ed. note: 1978 was the year when Truffaut’s book was published), “he’d probably have Yves Saint Laurent do the costumes.” Seberg’s modernist attitude and style, both on and off screen, would have found a liberating form of expression in Saint Laurent’s clothes, who Truffaut considered “the greatest cinephile among the fashion designers”, who “really understood what cinema costumes had to be like, and he designed them both for their movement and style.” Jean Seberg would eventually wear Yves Saint Laurent on screen, in 1965, in Mervyn LeRoy’s Moment to Moment (1965), the fashion designer’s foray into cinema, two years before Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour that marked the beginning of one of the most significant actress-fashion designer partnerships, Catherine Deneuve-Yves Saint Laurent, one of their films together including Truffaut’s La siréne du Mississippi (1969).

Jean Seberg in “Bonjour Tristesse”, 1958 | Wheel Productions

Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle, at its 60th anniversary this year, was not only one of the first films to set off one of the most important cinematic movements in the world, but also one that would have an impact on fashion and that would beguile international audiences to this day. The French New Wave films exquisitely captured the life of the young in France and especially in Paris, the fashion, the urban professional life, the ideological struggles, the carefree minds, the spirit of youth. Raymond Cauchetier, also known as the photographer of the New Wave, captured through his lens enduring moments that Godard’s shoot only implied. There is a scene on the Champs-Élysées, filmed in long shot and from overhead, in which Godard has Seberg give Belmondo a sweet peck on the cheek. Cauchetier brought the actors together to reproduce the scene in a close-up, which became one of the movie’s iconic images despite not existing in the film at all. Cauchetier caught the film’s immediacy and free-form style, as well as the star power, ease and effervescence of Seberg and Belmondo throughout the shoot.

That ease is spoken through their costumes, too. The film does not credit any costume designer for the wardrobes. It is very likely that Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg made their own sartorial choices or even wore their own clothes on set. He set the standard for smoky French sex appeal, and she, with her infusion of French chic into her American sporty, preppy style (just like Seberg in real life), finally made a big entrance on screen and would be admired and copied by the worldwide public for generations to come, creating the stereotype of the French gamine. She is all light and cool and mischief. Patricia Franchini, an American student working for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune in Paris, made style news with her pixie haircut, black eyeliner and a wardrobe packed with sailor stripes, oversized men’s shirts, ballet slippers, loafers, trench coat, skinny pants and Trilby hat borrowed from Jean-Paul Belmondo/Michel.

In another rare interview talking about the movie, taken just before shooting a scene in À bout de souffle, Jean, dressed in the striped dress that Patricia wears in the film, said that Godard described her character as “the one in Bonjour Tristesse two years later”. Godard was a cinephile and when he went from the front of the camera as editor of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, to behind the camera as a film-maker, he frequently made allusions to his director peers whom he admired. There are many “film in film” sequences in Breathless, such as the one when Patricia hides in a cinema, the famous Le Mac Mahon, from the police, and the show that they are announcing next is Preminger’s very own Whirlpool (1949).

Further discussing her character, Seberg depicted her as “a very franchised American girl, a very sophisticated American girl, I suppose what some would call a very liberated American girl” and further concluded that she was one of the first Americans to speak French in a French movie. Belmondo was one of the anti-heroes of La nouvelle vague and she was the anti-heroine of this new cinema that had new life in it, that questioned the establishment, that wanted to experiment in new ways with everything. It’s the only way you can find your true identity.

Jean Seberg in “À bout de souffle”, 1960 | Rialto Pictures, Studio Canal

More stories: Le Redoutable: In Conversation with Costume Designer Sabrina Riccardi / Clothes and Character in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Films / François Truffaut’s Heroines


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