Who was Jean Seberg?
Jean Seberg was a prominent actress from 1957 to her untimely death in 1979 at the young age of 40. Her career and personal life were tumultuous, and many of her films were frankly major flops. You may remember her from Saint Joan, Otto Preminger’s rendition of Joan of Arc. Seberg was a rookie before landing this role, and she supposedly beat out 18,000 actresses for the part. Unfortunately, the film was a flop and an unfortunate experience for Seberg.
When asked about her experience, she said, “I have two memories of Saint Joan. The first was being burned at the stake in the picture. The second was being burned at the stake by the critics. The latter hurt more. I was scared like a rabbit and it showed on the screen. It was not a good experience at all. I started where most actresses end up.” Even still, Seberg went on to be in over thirty films during her career including Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Paint Your Wagon (1969), and, arguably most importantly, Breathless (1960).
Breathless was Jean-Luc Goddard’s first majorly acclaimed film, and one of the first films of the French New Wave. This film movement emerged in rejection of 1950s French filmmaking (often referred to as the “Tradition of Quality”) and pushed modernity, risk, and youth rebellion, in stark contrast to the films that were being made before. Seberg’s role in Breathless is her most iconic, and she quickly became the face of the movement for many.
Though Seberg’s career continued and her roles multiplied, her personal life was tumultuous and troubled. After getting involved with the Black Panther movement, she was notoriously victimized by the FBI for her contributions to their cause, both financially and politically. While she supported the cause, government persecution haunted her, and she eventually (supposedly) took her own life via overdose.
And, honestly, why does she matter?
There are countless reasons why Jean Seberg matters and should be recognized as a prominent force in cinema and in history more broadly. First, her contributions to the fight for racial equality despite the precarious position they put her in are admirable. Seberg lent her publicity and image for the sake of the Black Panther movement, which cannot be said of most prominent actors and actress at the time. While the reasons behind her involvement aren’t fully fleshed out, she did at least attempt to help the movement progress and recognized the need for equality in the United States and elsewhere during a trying period of history.
Secondly, every film student will easily recognize Seberg’s face. Her starring role in Breathless is unforgettable, both because of her air of modernity and the film’s impact on cinema’s history. Breathless paved the way for a new era of film that focused on current events, politics, activism, conscientious filmmaking, and aesthetic differentiation. So many filmmakers were influenced by the New Wave that it is hard to separate them from the pack of those that were not. Seberg was a huge part of this revolution, and if you haven’t seen Breathless, you really should. It’s charmingly disorganized, extremely French, and a supremely enjoyable watch, even if you don’t study film.
As more and more main players of the New Wave pass away (seemingly every month now), it is increasingly important that we remember and honor their legacy, both as contributors to the cinema we know and love today, and as historical figures of staggering weight.
Click here to read Bea’s review of Seberg starring Kristin Stewart as Jean.
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