Jean Seberg: Influencing French New Wave & History

Jean Seberg, an American actress who became the face of French New Wave cinema, was a groundbreaking star as well as an activist who was targeted by the FBI for her support of the Black Panthers. On her birthday, we celebrate her impact on film history and the 1960s as a whole. 

Seberg was born in Iowa and made her film debut as the titular Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan, although she has been public about not having a good experience on set. As a result, Preminger cast her in his next film, Bonjour Tristesse, where she met her first husband, François Moreuil, and subsequently began her career in France. She returned to Hollywood in the ‘60s, although she continued taking roles in films that incorporated French settings. 

In Dayna Hagewood’s article on Seberg’s influence, she writes, “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 actresses 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.” Furthermore, “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 who 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.”

In 2019, Kristen Stewart played the role of Seberg in the movie of the same name. The political thriller followed Jean Seberg’s involvement with the civil rights movement, specifically regarding her relationship with a Black Panther activist, Hakim Jamal. Beatrice Viri’s piece on the film describes it as a “good introduction to those who aren’t too keen on who Seberg was. It’s also very interesting to note that Stewart reenacted Seberg’s Joan of Arc and Breathless, the titles where Seberg rose to fame.” Despite this, we recommend watching the real Jean Seberg films in her memory rather than director Benedict Andrews’ dramatized biopic.

You can watch Breathless on HBO Max today! Or check out Bonjour Tristesse streaming on the Criterion Channel!


© Anna Nappi (11/13/21) Special for FF2 Media.



Featured photo: “1957: American actress Jean Seberg (1938 – 1979) during a scene from her film ‘St Joan’, directed by Otto Preminger from the play by Bernard Shaw.” by Raoul Luoar is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

Tags: Anna Nappi, beatrice viri, bonjour tristesse, breathless, Dayna Hagewood, jean seberg, kristen stewart, saint joan

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Anna is currently a senior at Brandeis University studying Film, Journalism, and Psychology. At Brandeis, she writes for the student newspaper and is the undergraduate degree representative of the Journalism program. From theaters to museums to concert halls, she loves exploring the art world in Boston as well as in her Maine hometown. Anna is passionate about FF2’s mission and excited for the opportunity to work alongside a wonderful team dedicated to supporting women artists.
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