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The Seberg in "Seberg"

by Mark Brinkherhoff

Jean Seberg at only 17 years of age at a screen test for her film debutKristen Stewart as Jean Seberg in SEBERG (2019)

Jean Seberg is a largely under-seen screen star among contemporary moviegoers and even cinéastes. I myself was unfamiliar with her work, save maybe Airport (1970), until a couple of years ago when Katrina Longworth, of the absolutely essential podcast, You Must Remember This, embarked on a nine-part journey that chronicled the parallel rise and, in terms of public favor, fall of Jane Fonda and Jean Seberg, circa the late 1950s into the ‘70s. 

That Jane Fonda of all people purportedly envied Seberg, a friend and fellow American expat in ’60s France, for her edgy, avant-garde segues into French New Wave cinema is itself intriguing. But it’s the eclectic filmography of the beleaguered, ill-fated Seberg, who died tragically (at only 40) in the summer of 1979, that actually warrants our collective fascination, examination and ultimately admiration. So, on the heels of the Venice Film Festival premiere of Benedict Andrews’ Seberg, starring a similarly dismissed, then eventually respected actress, Kristen Stewart, let’s stroll through a handful of Seberg’s more seminal works, all (miraculously) available now on various streaming platforms...

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Seberg’s second film (and her second—and final—one with the odious director Otto Preminger) pitted her against acting titans and future/should’ve-been Oscar winners, David Niven and Deborah Kerr, in a French Riviera-set melodrama that has to be seen to be believed. [Streaming on YouTube]


Breathless (1960)

Her indisputable classic, directed by Jean-Luc Godard and co-starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, was—and still is—a French New Wave sensation. It prompted none other than François Truffaut to hail the pixie-cut Seberg, playing a free-spirited student and aspiring journalist, as “the best actress in Europe.” (Truffaut, incidentally, later tried in vain to cast her in Day for Night, over which I weep.) [Streaming on Criterion Channel]


Lilith (1964)

The film that garnered Seberg a modicum of respect from larger audiences at home, this mental illness drama cast her opposite a young Warren Beatty and Peter Fonda (RIP) as a schizophrenic patient who captivates both of them. [Streaming on Amazon Prime]


Pendulum (1969)

A whodunit in the vein of The Fugitive, this period thriller is both dated and timely, considering the then-recent “Miranda rights” decision and modern-day police brutality. [Streaming on YouTube]


Paint Your Wagon (1969)

The would-be blockbuster that wasn’t, Joshua Logan’s pricey, star-studded musical surely was trying to capitalize on Lee Marvin’s Oscar-winning turn in Cat Ballou  (1965), on top of a prime-beef Clint Eastwood, vying for the affection/attention of a luminous Seberg. [Streaming on Amazon Prime]


Kill! (1972)

Directed by her then-husband Romain Gary, this oh-so-‘70s action drama came along when vendetta flicks like the recently-discussed Death Wish were all the rage. Seberg plays the globe-trotting wife of an Interpol agent who “investigates the freelance killings of drug and porn peddlers.” [Streaming on Amazon Prime]




How many of Seberg’s 30-some-odd films have you seen? Which are your favorites? And will this Marshalltown, Iowa native, who once babysat the future Mary Beth Hurt (!!!) ever get the cultural reappraisal she perhaps deserves? We hope so.

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Reader Comments (15)

Bonjour Tristesse.

I think Stewart is wrong for the part.

September 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I sort of agree. While Stewart is a fine actress, she has an edge to her that may not capture Seberg’s fragility all that well.

September 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

I've only seen 2 of her films. I'm one of maybe 10 people on the planet who associates her most with a song ("Hopefulness to Hopelessness") by the 1990s band Marine Research, so if I get around to the Kristen Stewart movie I'll walk into it with little background.

September 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

I've seen 11 of her 39 including all the ones mentioned above excepting Kill, which sounds interesting and that cast!

I know she hated it and THAT wig is a horror but I love Airport and her in it.

Otherwise of what I've seen I'd say Breathless and Lilith are where she's seen to her best advantage.

Paint Your Wagon was a trial to wade through.

The biography of her-Played Out-is fascinating and terribly, terribly sad. She was a complex troubled woman. The juxtaposed pictures of her on the cover as a fresh eyed 17 year old brimming with promise and the burned out hollow husk of the year she committed suicide are haunting.

September 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Niven and Kerr are better in BONJOUR, TRISTESSE than in their Oscar winning/nominated roles in SEPARATE TABLES, from the same year. And Seberg is better than both of them in Preminger's film

September 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

Nice article. But it seems you shouldn't call Otto Preminger "odious" without saying why. (His films most certainly aren't odious - they present a generous and non-judgemental view of their characters.)

I think Jean Seberg is amazing in Bonjour Tristesse (and it's an amazing movie, with great performances from David Niven and Deborah Kerr).

I also like her in Breathless, where she's perfect.

And she's also excellent in Saint Joan, her debut. She was slaughtered by the critics for that one - but she was ahead of her time. Her performance in it hasn't dated.

I don't begrudge her Paint Your Wagon or Airport.

I look forward to seeing this new film about her life. Kristen Stewart is one of my favourite actresses, and so I'm keen to see how she plays this role.

September 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Bonjour Tristesse and A Bout de Souffle are the only films of Seberg that I've seen so far. I've seen some of Paint Your Wagon and I think that's enough for me because that was FUCKING HORRIBLE.

September 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

@Edward, Preminger was legendary for his temper, taunts and tantrums, often directed wiltingly at women like Seberg (see this, this, and this).

September 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMark Brinkerhoff

Mark: Thanks for the links - they, or at least two of them, paint quite a rounded portrait of the filmmaker. I just felt "odious" was a bit stark with nothing to explain it. But I sure wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of one of his legendary temper tantrums!

Interestingly, the Denby article criticises Seberg's performances in the two Preminger films. But she is so startlingly modern in both films - she is a revelation.

September 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

You Must Remember This gave me a whole new respect for this woman. Her story was so sad.

That being said, I've only seen Breathless, Bonjour Tristesse, and Lilith. I think she's great in all three, but she really stunned me in Lilith. It's a phenomenal, tricky performance.

I love KStew so I'm trying to remain optimistic about the film, given its reception.

September 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

Seberg and Belmondo are very sexy in "Breathless"

September 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I've seen all of them, no small feat considering obscurity of some of them.
But that was part of the job researching Jean Seberg for her biography (Jean Seberg--Breathless) and the documentary Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg w/Fourth Wall Films. And of course the book The Films of Jean Seberg w/Michael Coates-Smith.

I would have Five-Day Lover, The Line of Demarcation, and Dead of Summer on the list of her best works, as well as The Wild Duck.

September 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGMcGee

She is a fascinating figure. I love her performance in Airport. There is a melancholic undercurrent to her work that is compelling. I also love how she refuses to be charmed by Helen Hayes. THAT is cool.

September 4, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Always thought that she is French, definitely not American

September 8, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFr

I thought she was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Lilith.
It.s funny you could tell she was bored out of her tree in airport although she is great in it.
she excelled when she was with co stars and directors whom she felt comfortable with.
You can tell she can’t stand George Peppard in Pendulum or Burt Lancaster in airport but loved lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood in paint your wagon.

September 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDermot

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