The Criterion Shelf: Starring Delphine Seyrig

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It took a while for Delphine Seyrig to become Delphine Seyrig, and that’s not a bad thing. In a business mainly preoccupied with youth and beauty, particularly celebrating and quickly using up female youth and beauty, the excitement of an ingénue who gets it right on their first try at movie stardom is often a matter of much-lauded excitement: entire festivals at Cannes have been spent celebrating the genius newcomer (it’s even lampooned in a very bad Henry Jaglom film), and entire awards seasons have treated teenagers who can walk and talk at the same time like miracles from heaven (I’m not saying that Kate Hudson, Hailee Steinfeld and Saoirse Ronan aren’t good; I’m saying that people always act like a precocious young person is always the first of their kind).

Actors who start off well but age like fine wine, on the other hand, rarely get the same level of buzz despite the fact that it’s one of the most rewarding experiences for cinema fans who follow their careers: some of us watched those Twilight movies and had nothing to grab onto until the stars of the franchise started working with auteurs, showing off so much more depth as a result, but Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are actually rare cases of succeeding with age. Others, like Samantha Mathis, Kate Bosworth, Selma Blair were all duds as young romantic heroines who turned forty and ripened into complicated personalities that the business had zero idea what to do with.

Delphine Seyrig made her first film at twenty-four and had her break-out starring role at thirty, but other than her first starring moment, in Alain Resnais’s Last Year At Marienbad, she didn’t play the roles she would be most associated with until closer to her forties. With her delicate, fine-boned features and that voice that sounded like drops of the finest champagne falling on silk, she always had a bit of an older air about her anyway (her performance as an aging widow in Muriel doesn’t need that awful grey wig to pull off her sense of a haunted past), so it makes sense that her stardom, niche and temporary as it was, would happen at what the industry considers an advanced age.

The voice that I mention, one of her most appealing qualities, is also memorable because her accent in any language had a mysterious lilt to it that was the result of a globetrotting childhood. Most associated as a star of French cinema, she was actually born in Beirut to an Alsatian father, who was there as a cultural attaché, and a Swiss mother. Her father’s work took her to New York City when she was ten before they returned to Lebanon when she was a teenager, and attended a French Protestant school. After high school she studied at the Comedie de Saint-Etienne under L’Atalante star Jean Dasté (who appears with her in Muriel), made her debut on television on an early Sherlock Holmes serial and went back to New York City to study at the Actors Studio. It was there that she met Robert Frank and made her film debut, co-starring with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the little-seen Pull My Daisy.

Her life in Manhattan also introduced her to Alain Resnais, who cast her in Marienbad and made her a household name, but with that dark hair and Garbo-like makeup, Seyrig isn’t quite recognizable as the low-lidded beauty with the gorgeous coif of golden curls that many of us know and love in Donkey Skin and Stolen Kisses. Resnais buries the actress’s depth and charisma in this role, but he more than makes up for it when Muriel, which repeats Marienbad‘s obsession with memory, takes a more humane approach to its experimentation and shows Seyrig off as a masterful performer, earning her the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival for the role. Between that and Truffaut casting her as the hot older woman who steals Antoine Doinel’s heart and loins (at least temporarily) in his third Antoine Doinel film, Seyrig’s iconic status was set, and the campy indulgence of Daughters of Darkness was naturally just around the corner. Thanks to her proficiency in French, German and English she was available to work anywhere in Europe or America, rarely playing leads but racking up roles in films with some of the art form’s most admired filmmakers: besides Resnais and Truffaut there was Demy, Bunuel, Losey and her best-known Hollywood work, a cameo in Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 thriller The Day Of the Jackal.

At the height of her fame in the seventies, Seyrig’s appearances in The Discreet Charm of the Bougeoisie or Daughters would have been the ones people associated her with the most, the elegant, blond bourgeoise, but today she’s mentioned even more often for the role that had ties to her own personal life as an advocate for feminist causes. In Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Seyrig worked hard at enacting her character’s household rituals with the kind of easy abandon that the director wanted from her; the Criterion Channel doesn’t include Sami Frey’s on-set video diary of the making of the film in their Seyrig collection, but it’s on the channel and fans of the film really should watch it, to see the painstaking efforts the actress took to get every move right. In the film is included a terrific break from filming when Seyrig is interviewed on the set by a journalist asking her about her political devotion to feminism; at the time, Seyrig had signed the groundbreaking 1971 Manifesto of the 343, confirming publicly that she had had an illegal abortion. Around the time of Jeanne Dielman, she took part in a video editing workshop at the home of Swiss filmmaker Carole Roussopoulos which led to the two of them and director Ioana Wieder forming the Les Insoumuses collective, from which a number of projects sprang, including an adaptation of Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto and the documentary Be Pretty and Shut Up, which is included here (their collective’s name is a pun more or less meaning “disobedient muses”). In 1983 she was part of the group that established the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir, an archive of filmed and recorded work by women.

It would have been wonderful to see what appreciation Seyrig could have generated by now were she still alive, given that her international qualifications would have landed her plenty of work in the Netflix era of filmmaking. Her directorial career might have flourished and, possibly, her politics being more mainstream would have brought her praise (or, equally possible, derision, as is often the case with feminists coming up against the younger generations, as happened with fellow manifesto signer Catherine Deneuve). Sadly, Seyrig’s death from ovarian cancer at the age of 58 denied us all of these possibilities, and the slump of obscure and little-remembered works in which she appeared during her final years was never reversed by a triumphant comeback. As a result, Criterion’s tribute to her, celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of her birth and marking the thirtieth anniversary of her death, is mostly made up of the usual suspects with a few thrown in for good measure. Most of them, however, are usually focused on as markers of other careers, namely their directors, so it’s without a doubt exciting to watch them all again with a particular focus on this under-appreciated actor’s contribution to them.

Read Bil Antoniou and Rachel Ho's reviews of her films: thatshelf.com/the-criterion-shelf-starring-delphine-seyrig/