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In the Seberg Style.

Previously unavailable on any format, In the French Style (1963) was released on Columbia/Sony DVD in September 2011, but, alas, without a single extra feature. Made for $557,000, the film returned a small profit and earned generally good notices, but was quickly forgotten. Directed by Robert Parrish and written by Irwin Shaw for their Casanna Production Company, it yokes together two of Shaw's short stories: "A Year to Learn the Language" and "In the French Style." The former provides the basis for the first half of the film; the latter, the second half. Essentially a coming-of-age story, the film has to do with Christina James (Jean Seberg), a 19-year old Midwesterner who comes to Paris for a year to study art and learn the language, only to get caught up in the jaded social scene. Staying on for three more years, she abandons her painting, does some modeling, and embarks on a series of love affairs before finally deciding to return home.

Appearing in nearly every scene, Jean Seberg is the main reason to see the film. Settling in Paris after her two films with Preminger flopped, she famously rode the crest of the New Wave in Godard's Breathless (1959) and de Broca's sophisticated comedy The Five-Day Lover (1961), In fact, between 1958 and 1963, she practically owned the role of the American girl abroad in the French Style marks the culmination of this period in her career, and showcases one of her most affecting performances.

Contemporary critics by and large regarded In the French Style as ambitious but uneven, preferring the first half, which they found fresh and original. Gently comic in tone, it concentrates on Christina's romance with a charming, if opinionated French student (Philippe Forquet), and concludes with a nicely observed scene in which the two go to a hotel to make love for the first time. Unfortunately, things go wrong from the start. Their room turns out to be ice cold; the champagne they order, lukewarm. On top of that, Guy, the young man, hasn't brought along enough money. As he and Christina lie in bed, he berates himself for having bungled everything and makes a startling confession: he is not a 21-year old engineering student, as he had led her to believe, but a 16-year old lyceum (high school) student. With this admission, the mood of the scene darkens. "How could I have been so inaccurate?" Christina says ruefully, having been taken in completely. Confused and hurt, she asks him why he lied. "Because you wouldn't have looked at me otherwise," he replies. Knowing this to be true, she cannot find it in her heart to be angry or turn him away. Following their lovemaking, Guy lies asleep by her side. However, she remains awake. Her eyes filled with tears, she knows their relationship is over.

What makes the film's first half especially engaging is Seberg and Forquet's playing off each other--Guy's mixture of pomposity and charm is perfectly matched by Christina's mixture of decency, determination, and naivete. It is no coincidence that her last name is James, for she is the 20th century counterpart to Henry James' Daisy Miller: the proverbial innocent abroad who finds her values sorely tested. Thus, when Guy, in an angry snit, accuses her of caring only about her career and predicts that she will use sex to advance it, she fires back that she could have stayed in the States if it was sex she was after. And when in the hotel scene, he announces that the girl always undresses first, she declares emphatically, "Not this girl." As Christina soon discovers, Paris is not just a place but an education, in which one learns more about life, love, and oneself.

This education comes at a price, however: the loss of innocence. Indeed, in the film's second half, which opens with a rather awkward transitional sequence, we meet Christina three years later. Now the "smashingest girl in town" and breathtakingly beautiful, she is at her soigne best, having replaced her earlier smock and pony tail with chic evening wear and a stylish hairdo. Far more poised and sophisticated than before, she also is more guarded, keeping her emotions in check and hiding her real feelings beneath a well-cultivated surface. As critics have rightly complained, this section of the film treads on familiar ground, but it gives Seberg the chance to deepen Christina's characterization, plus it sustains a mood of melancholy and loss.

In this regard two scenes stand out: Christina's heart-to-heart talk with her father (Addison Powell), who is visiting from Chicago, and her breaking off an affair with foreign correspondent Walter Beddoes (Stanley Baker). In the former scene Christina and her father have a frank discussion about the life she is leading. According to Seberg, this was a scene she had played repeatedly with her parents back in Iowa. In the scene Christina is taken aback when her father suddenly asks how many men at the party they've just attended have been her lovers. Unfailingly honest, she answers, "A couple," fully expecting his disapproval. However, far from lecturing her or throwing up his hands in horror, he explains that he knows enough about life to realize that a woman Christina's age may have taken two or three lovers in as many years. He then goes on to say that his only concerns are her welfare, her happiness, and her hope for the future. Finally, he tells her that he is proud of her for trying to make a life in Paris, but that it is time to return home. She listens respectfully, but is too much in love with Beddoes to heed his advice. He accepts her decision, albeit reluctantly, and the conversation comes to a close. Interestingly, Irwin Shaw had misgivings about his writing of the scene. Would an American father and daughter in the 1960s have talked so candidly about her life? he wondered. In fact, he needn't have worried, for not only is the writing insightful, but Seberg and Powell bring to the scene impressive feeling and conviction.

In the latter scene Christina meets with Beddoes for the last time to tell him she is moving on with her life. By now she has accepted the fact that he loves her less than she loves him, and that their relationship has no future. In this scene, all the hurt and pain she has suffered, all of the feelings she has suppressed, come to the fore. It is Seberg's most moving moment in the film.

Prior to this scene Christina has come to the realization that she has only two options available to her: remain "an emotional transient," or go back home and marry. Now, as she sits across from Beddoes at small restaurant table, her appearance--she has returned her hair to its natural color--and her rejection of alcohol in favor of tea and lemon make clear her choice. Unwilling to accept her choice, Beddoes pleads with her to come away with him, but she refuses, explaining that she loves her fiance and he loves her--and that she no longer lives for the moment. However, she willingly admits that she is tempted by Beddoes's offer. It is a poignant admission, and we cannot help but wonder if by marrying she is denying a vital part of herself. For this reason alone the scene is imbued with a sense of melancholy and loss.

Indeed, seen today, this scene feels even more bittersweet and melancholic than it did in 1963, the year the film was released. For Christina's options are really no options at all. Quite the contrary, they provide an apt illustration of the pressures placed on American women after WWII, who yearned for more freedom, but had precious little way to attain it. Stated differently, the Christinas of the world were unable to take advantage of the dialogue that Betty Friedan initiated in her landmark book The Feminine Mystique, which came out in the same year as In the French Style. This dialogue, which continued in other groundbreaking feminist works that followed, urged women to become financially and emotionally independent in order to break out of their limited roles in society. Put simply, even as Christina was bidding farewell to Beddoes and embracing a new life as a surgeon's wife, the world around her was changing. This was the world that explicitly feminist texts and films of the 70s like Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman and Weill's Girlfriends would examine.

In the last shot we see of her, Christina is motionless and framed through a window, as she watches Beddoes disappear from view. That she has regrets about a lost love is only natural. For 21st century viewers, however, this image of Christina is not just about lost love or lingering regrets. It is about a woman at the crossroads in history. It is an evocative image, and along with Jean Seberg's sensitive performance, provides another reason for giving In the French Style a second look.
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Title Annotation:Jean Seberg in 'In the French Style'
Author:Nolletti, Arthur, Jr.
Article Type:Video recording review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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