It’s a genuine forgotten gem: American student Jean Seberg’s five-year adventure in Paris is mostly a period of romantic frustration. Irwin Shaw and Robert Parrish’s look at the problems of an independent woman is remarkably insightful; the chronically miscast and underused Ms. Seberg is luminous.
In the French Style
1963 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 105 min. / Ship Date April 12, 2016 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Jean Seberg, Stanley Baker, Phillippe Forquet, Addison Powell, Jack Hedley, Maurice Teynac, Claudine Auger, James Leo Herlihy, Ann Lewis, Barbara Sommers.
Cinematography Michel Kelber
Original Music Joseph Kosma
Written by Irwin Shaw from his short stories
Produced by Irwin Shaw, Robert Parrish
Directed by Robert Parrish
Talk about elusive movies: one must keep an eye on the TCM logs to catch many of the films of director Robert Parrish. I had to wait for the advent of DVD to see star Jean Seberg in anything but Breathless and Paint Your Wagon. Fans of what is surely the most independent actress of her time should flock to In the French Style, a ‘young woman in love’ story that succeeds 100% in presenting Ms. Seberg as a performer who has fully arrived. Even the trailer stresses that this movie, a collaboration of Robert Parrish and writer Irwin Shaw, is an American show that just happens to look like one of those glorious B&W French productions of the early 1960s. The cinematography is gorgeous at all times, the film’s outlook is adult (for 1963) and there’s no sign of touristy detours, save for a final shot that rises to frame the Arc de Triomphe.
This independently produced Columbia release has some problems, but it’s so different from other ‘Paris adventure’ films of its time that it fascinates anyway. It has the perfect role for Jean Seberg, being a show about a young woman who wants to find her own way through life. She learns about men, and discovers that her beauty is an easy ticket to some goals but not others. It’s clumsy in ways that can only be blamed on the filmmakers. Irwin Shaw has a sympathetic eye and ear for the displaced free women of Paris in the late 1950s. Far from being a tragic figure, his heroine voices sentiments that would make feminists stand up and cheer. Yet none of this is at the expense of the men who have disappointed her. This being a Robert Parrish movie, no character is propped up to serve as a villain.
19 year-old Christina James (Seberg) from Chicago is living and painting in Paris, taking some money from her parents and earning some as a model. She meets a refreshing young Frenchman, Guy (Philippe Forquet), and although he won’t speak to her in French any more than the other people she’s met, they begin what to her is a rather cautious romance. Guy doesn’t try to sweep her off her feet. When they do decide to make love, the whole situation is very awkward… and then he reveals his secret. Two years later, Christina’s painting work hasn’t progressed, although some men have bought paintings as a way to get to know her. She’s had one real lover, perhaps three. There’s an older man, a count, an American fashion photographer (Jack Hedley) and a handsome fellow she’s really taken with, newspaper correspondent Walter Beddoes (Stanley Baker). But Beddoes sees her only during gaps in his work schedule, and like the others, no permanent relationship is in the offing. Christina’s father (Addison Powell) visits, gets a quick look at her lifestyle and advises her to come home. She rejects him but believes some of what he says about her being used by people. Christina doesn’t want to go home and put herself in the marriage market. But she also feels rebellious toward these men that come to her only at their convenience.
I almost stopped watching In the French Style at around the half-hour mark, and I’m glad I didn’t. It has serious structure problems that might spring from the fact that it’s two short stories glued together. The first episode rings false for me because Christina’s problem isn’t yet fully stated. She’s just a girl in Paris who finds a boyfriend. ‘New discovery’ Philippe Forquet seems to me a big zero, along with his (dubbed?) English-language voice that reminds me of every other ‘fake French’ movie of the ’60s. Maybe women find Guy attractive, but to me he’s just another selfish clod that imposes his desires on a woman, who falls in love anyway. The culmination of the relationship is a painfully un-romantic night in a cheap hotel, which I suppose is probably accurate for some relationships. “I think it’s time for us to make love,” says the immature Guy. The place is freezing. Even the talented Robert Parrish can’t fix the scene.
The film improves greatly after the exit of Guy. Christina becomes a regular party girl in a modeling crowd, not a loose character but one tired of hearing men she likes ‘say goodbye.’ Six months later, they show up to introduce their new fianceés with the sentiment, ‘We’ll always be friends, right?”
Walter Beddoes is always excited to see Christina. He’s quite nice in his way, but doesn’t hesitate to remind her that he does see other women during his extended absences. The photographer blows a hole through Christina’s heart with the announcement that ‘for the time being,’ he’s going to drop her to see a Greek girl he has met. Always too poised to reveal the pain this causes, Christina doesn’t demand rights she doesn’t have. She knows that an adventuress on the loose must expect some heartbreak. However, at one point she vows to someday be the one saying ‘goodbye’ to a lover.
The film’s view of Paris is somewhat lyrical, yet avoids the usual clichés of ‘footloose Americans in Paris’ movies. The much better known Paris Blues is more of a ‘movie stars pretend to be footloose Americans in Paris’ movie. Seberg is the real deal, having several years before been plucked out of an audition by Otto Preminger and promoted to instant stardom, and learning to act on the job. Likewise everyone else seems authentic. Christina’s father is tactful and understanding to a degree. At the party he sees evidence of what a Chicago history professor might consider European decadence, without being offended — even when a female fashion photographer chats him up as a possible conquest, and points out a sleazy fellow she says almost married Christina the previous year.
The adult content of In the French Style is in the dialogue and relationships. The night of love with Guy is treated in a chaste manner, and for all we know, Ms. Seberg insisted on the revealing nightgown she wears in one scene — I wonder if it skated over the heads of the censors because of the film’s refreshingly serious, non-exploitative nature.
The drama does build to a satisfying confrontation. The previously uncommitted Christina meets a man worth dropping everything for. She ceases being passively cooperative with her associates, friends and lovers. To some her final choice may seem a sell-out, but she’s simply taking a direction toward a future with someone willing to commit to her. Partnering with someone you respect is an excellent way to feel better about yourself.
The major scene with Walter where Christina declares her intentions is a real keeper. Stanley Baker is superb; he communicates his possessive anger without falling back on any threat of violence. Even in Losey’s Accident Baker’s character never has to confront his selfish brutality, but here his Walter Beddoes admits that he wants to cry, even as he stays angry.
Seberg was often maligned as inexpressive, something that In the French Style disproves completely. She isn’t limited in her acting range. It’s just that she interprets characters that don’t wear their emotions on their face at all times. With Robert Parrish’s sensitive direction, Christina’s feelings and reactions are there to be seen — her bright face dims ever so slightly each time a beau disappoints her. So many men are emotionally untrustworthy that a woman with brains takes care not to completely open up her thoughts. For all I know Ms. Seberg is totally unlike her screen persona, but I see a self-reliant woman at time when such creatures were far less common. I like this show because it’s unlike Seberg’s more celebrated movies Bonjour Tristesse and Lilith. In the second film especially, she’s impossible to read: her character is emotionally disturbed, and perhaps serving a thematic function as an elemental demon. This movie’s Christina is one of those beautiful creatures that receive special opportunities, yet sometimes have difficulty relating to the people that gravitate toward beauty. Christina has character, and I like her.
The movie is so lumpy that I can’t help that think that the episodes with Guy would have worked better if they weren’t presented in a straight chronology, but revealed bit by bit in flashbacks. That way the film could start when from her second or third year in Paris, using flashbacks to explain her first fling. Making the Guy material shorter wouldn’t hurt either. Perhaps Parrish and Shaw, or maybe Columbia, wanted to avoid comparison with Seberg’s earlier box office dud Bonjour Tristesse, which plays out as an extended ‘what I did last summer’ flashback. As it is, after the opening romance with Guy, the movie seems to reboot and start over with a new rhythm. I was so happy for Guy to say au revoir that I didn’t mind.
In the French Style was made immediately prior to the swinging sixties with the Beatles and James Bond. Therefore it’s interesting to see future Bond girl Claudine Auger in one scene. Then, in the wild party sequence, the photographer’s collage of posed models practically looks like a promotional setup for Thunderball. One has a pistol and another poses in her underwear. Christine wears a fur coat and one model is dressed in a full Scuba wet suit, complete with flippers and spear gun.
It’s also interesting to get a good look at James Leo Herlihy, who acted briefly but is more famous for the novels Midnight Cowboy and All Fall Down, and the play Blue Denim, an odd trio for sure. He has a pivotal part in the last scene.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of In the French Style is a stunning encoding of this beautiful B&W Columbia release, that the world probably started ignoring one week after its release. It’s in perfect condition, and the HD transfer lets us admire the terrific images of Michel Kelber, the cameraman of Renoir’s French Cancan and Ray’s Bitter Victory. Joseph Kosma’s sprightly score comes into its own when Guy spirits Christina around town on his Vespa. The fact that she struggles to keep her skirt down shows us that she’s more reserved than maybe even she knows. Kosma’s music can be heard on an Isolated, or almost isolated, Score track.
Twilight Time’s three-way commentary — Lem Dobbs and Julie Kirgo holding forth with Nick Redman interjecting comments as needed, tries to sort out the production as best it can. Ms. Kirgo delves into the murky conspiracy scandals surrounding the decade-long harassment and eventual suspicious death of the actress. Seeing how the F.B.I. dealt with the Black Panthers, I don’t know what to believe — anything seems possible. Ms. Seberg doesn’t seem a troublemaker, especially when we see her with roles in big studio movies like Airport, playing the mainstream game as best she could. Ms. Kirgo also sees Christina’s decision as something of a letdown. To me she didn’t seem happy where she was. If she found an attractive egotistical artist to take up with, she’d forever be the failed painter.
An original trailer is included. It picks out lines of dialogue that must have sounded vaguely shocking in 1963, but now come off more as the clear thinking of a woman with an independent spirit.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In the French Style
Supplements: Isolated Score Track (with some effects), commentary with Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 19, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson