FRENCH WRITER AND FILMMAKER Philippe Garrel’s Les hautes solitudes (1974), a rueful, beautifully shot portrait of American actress Jean Seberg, is only now having its commercial release in the United States. Silent, black-and-white, and nonnarrative, the film has no discernible conceptual pretext. “I conceived Les hautes solitudes as outtakes,” said Garrel, “of a film that never existed in the first place . . . I arrived every day at Seberg’s apartment with my camera and filmed her on the balcony, close to the window, for hours, with no role and no script. No one thought it was a real film, but she was very independent and didn’t care about this.”
The result is a haunting, dreamlike experience, all the more poignant in retrospect. Smiling appreciatively at the man behind the camera, Seberg nevertheless seems at the edge of an unfathomable sadness. (The title, translatable as “the lonely upper-crusts,” might in this case connote “lonely celebrities” or the “lonely famous.”) Long takes, mostly in close-up, reflect the patience and fascination of the filmmaker as much as the openness and willingness of his subject. This is not a portrait in the Warhol mode, of an impenetrable face and inscrutable personality. Seberg seems not only unruffled by the absence of a script but allows raw feelings to surface throughout, thanks, no doubt, to Garrel’s disciplined but empathic gaze.
Undistracted by fictional contrivances or narrative commentary, we inevitably read Seberg’s facial expressions and shifting moods in terms of the turn her life had taken by the time this footage was shot. Born in Iowa and desperate to be an actress, she made her debut in Otto Preminger’s version of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1957), a role she won following an international, highly publicized search for the “right” ingénue to play the part. Though “burned at the stake by the critics,” as she put it, her acting was no less arch than that of the pros in Preminger’s self-consciously sardonic treatment and was more compatible with Shaw’s irrepressible, spunky heroine than anyone acknowledged. Somewhat less savaged was her incarnation of the callow, amoral Cecile in Preminger’s adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958), and two years later she was famously cast opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless (1960).
But while she was active throughout the 1960s, her career took a nosedive by the end of the decade. She was blacklisted in Hollywood, hounded by the FBI for her support of the Black Panthers, and, having gone into premature labor, suffered the tragic loss of the infant daughter of her second marriage (to novelist Romain Gary). Thanks to rumors spread by the bureau and gossip columnists that the child’s father was a Black Panther, she and Gary endured further humiliation by agreeing to an open casket to prove the infant was white. Dependent on drugs for depression, Seberg spent a short time in a psychiatric hospital, and on August 30, 1979, five years after Garrel’s film, her death at age forty was declared suicide. Her career, with clips from various films, is the subject of Mark Rappaport’s documentary From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995), a predictably cynical view of the film industry, but not as moving or as personal as Garrel’s non-film.
Garrel, whose films often play on the border between autobiography and fiction, here indulges his much-documented and uncompromising appreciation of women. In the silence that prevails, we are as easily lost in Seberg’s face as we imagine he must have been, transfixed by her stunning beauty and perhaps taunted by a rescue fantasy, shared by the viewer, to save her from the despondency that overtook her life. Outtakes or not, there is not a single indifferent image on the screen, even of those who briefly accompany Seberg. Garrel’s paramour, the model Nico, appears early on, as do the American actress Tina Aumont and Laurent Terzieff. The latter’s two brief appearances are especially unnerving as they embody the very helplessness the director and the viewer feel in the face of Seberg’s fragile, fateful beauty. It seems supremely ironic that this woman should loom before us so magnificently, returned from the ashes like Shaw’s Joan, her outward gaze unflinching, as if to haunt the consciences of those who besieged her in life.
Les hautes solitudes runs February 24 through March 2 at the Metrograph in New York.