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Jean Seberg: Still Breathless After All These Years

vlcsnap-2012-05-22-19h22m51s213In the French Style (1963), an American production directed by Robert Parrish, is an unexpected find. While the films Jean Seberg made in France are mostly out of circulation, this affecting drama has been shown on TCM and is available on DVD with a good transfer. Because color was becoming the norm by 1963, I was surprised it was in black-and-white. As the movie begins, Paris looks drab. Things liven visually as the story progresses. Whereas many color movies from the era now appear dated, here the black-and-white has a freshness.

With Jean Paul Belmondo in Breathless (À bout de souffle)

The cinematography, by Michel Kelber, also makes clear the connection with the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) that was happening concurrently. Director Parrish [Cry Danger (1951)] would certainly have been aware of the New Wave. His straightforward storytelling style is closer to François Truffaut or Louis Malle than to the innovative Jean Luc Godard, whose Breathless (1960) Seberg is best known for [Film noir, where Parrish began, is part of the mix the New Wave drew from.]. French Style makes a good companion piece to Paris Blues (1961), directed by Martin Ritt, another movie about young American expatriates.

I'll be fashionable, someday

I’ll be fashionable, someday.

In French Style, Christina James (Seberg) is a nineteen-year-old studying abroad with ambitions to be a painter.At an art opening, she meets Guy (Phillipe Forquet) an arrogant young man with a secret. With little fanfare, she rides off with him on his motor scooter. That would seem to be the extent of it, another story of young love in the 1960s.

vlcsnap-2012-05-22-20h09m39s129vlcsnap-2012-05-22-20h13m01s98But, that’s only a preamble to a more nuanced one about life’s compromises and remaining true to an artistic vision. In an abrupt flash forward, Christina is a Paris party girl, successful in her way. The ponytail has been replaced by a more sophisticated hairdo and the painting career has gone on the back burner. She’s become a “man pleaser” which at first was a means to end but has become her new identity

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A Boy and a Woman in Model Shop

Sometimes, it takes an outsider. In Model Shop (1969), Jacques Demy discovers beauty in LA’s often derided urban sprawl. And for lovers of 60s style, it’s a non-stop fashion parade.

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Demy [The Umrellas of Cherbourg (1964)] begins in the industrial outskirts of the city. Perhaps symbolically, the twenty-something couple we’re introduced to live in a cottage next to an oil pump.

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Alexandra Hay is Gloria, a willowy part-time model who lives with her unemployed architect boyfriend George (Gary Lockwood). Gloria is the perfect California girl. The problem is, she whines and nags George about commitment and finding suitable employment, two things he seems allergic to. Hays created a sensation playing Jean Harlow in the Los Angeles run of Michael McClure’s play The Beard, with Dennis Hopper as Billy the Kid. According to Tom Lisanti’s 60′s Cinema, “she was arrested fourteen times for obscene language and doing stage nudity before landing a long-term contract with Columbia Pictures.”

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Best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Lockwood, at 32, is a bit old for the part of 26-year-old idealist George (Harrison Ford was Demy’s first choice). He’s boyish enough, complete with a Glen Cambell hairdo, but the lines around his eyes are evident and the cheeks too full. A former U.C.L.A. athlete, Lockwood is otherwise well suited to play George as an All-American boy who made a wrong turn at the frat house. He’s grown some sideburns and uses the counterculture vernacular. “I’m kind of in the same bag myself,” he replies when a friend complains of a lack of funds. Gloria tells George: “You reject society. You refuse to commit yourself to anything or anybody, don’t you? Not even to me.” What he doesn’t reject is the allowance from his wealthy parents. Unfortunately, they turn down his request for a raise.

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George talks the repo men out of towing his car, a green MG that Gloria reminds him he couldn’t afford. He sets off in search of the $100 he needs to keep the creditors off his back.

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George’s sports car is impractical and conspicuous in a world of Mustangs. It looks clunky next to the smooth lines of what GM and Ford were putting out at the time.

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Kate and Leo Together Again!

The movie that made Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio the biggest stars in the world is back, this time in 3-D.

In Titanic (1997), poor boy Jack meets rich girl Rose. It’s an old story. Occasionally, the girl in the story is the poor one. Consider Pretty in Pink (1986) and Mystic Pizza (1988). Ragamuffins Andie (Molly Ringwald) and Daisy (Julia Roberts) make do on a budget, rescued as much by their personal style as by the hero. Roberts was believable as the daughter of a Portuguese American fishing family, who cleans up extremely well. But, to have the girl as the wealthier half of the couple almost guarantees fabulous clothes, certainly the case with Titanic.

When we first meet Rose DeWitt Bukater, she’s played by Gloria Stuart [Gold Diggers of 1935], who was then 87. In writer/director James Cameron’s version of events, Rose, who the histories of the disaster wrote off as dead, turns up as one of its last survivors. She may yield a clue to what became of the diamond necklace called the Heart of the Ocean, last seen in her possession. As she begins to speak, she has the complete attention of the treasure hunter (Bill Paxton) and his crew. This may also be the first time her granddaughter (Suzy Amis) has heard the story. Rose claims to be as much in the dark as anyone about the fate of the necklace, but there’s a twinkle in her eye. When there’s a flashback to the young Rose (Winslet) dressed in her 1912 finery, we’re already on her side.

It was a well deserved Oscar win for costume designer Deborah Lynn Scott [Avatar (2009)] who sets up Rose as impossibly well bred, the kind of girl that starving artist/street urchin Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) would be lucky to even dream about.

But, dream he does and with the help of “The Unsinkable” Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), a woman who knows something about class jumping, he puts on a dinner jacket and sees how the the stiffs of the other half live. Rose receives a very different lesson when she descends to steerage with Jack and discovers an Irish céilidh dance in full swing. Here, James Horner’s score switches from the ethereal to fiery. 

There’s pure joy on her face as she dances with Jack. The fun couldn’t last, however. She’s dragged back to First Class by her fiancé (Billy Zane) and his henchman (David Warner). Of course, the story doesn’t end there.James Cameron won Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture. Imitating Jack’s moment of bravado, he hailed himself as “the King of the World.” Kate Winslet was nominated for Best Actress. With her nomination as Best Supporting Actress, Gloria Stuart became the oldest nominee. Neither won, but on turning 100 in July 2010, Stuart was honored by the Academy with a Centennial Celebration.

After telling the story of her greatest love, minus a single important detail concerning the necklace, there’s only one thing left for Rose to do.