Monday, July 15, 2024

The Woman in the Picture: The Life and Legacy of Delphine Seyrig

When it was announced back in December that Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) had been selected as the greatest film of all time for the Sight & Sound poll, reactions were (as expected) divisive. As images of the film flooded the internet on blogs, in videos, and tweets, they all had one thing in common: the actress Delphine Seyrig as the titular character in a state of melancholy. With a name not nearly as well known as some of her New Wave/Left Bank contemporaries, Seyrig’s career has proven itself one of the most enduring of the era. Her filmography, the characters she played, her appearance, that voice, and her personal life contained multitudes.

Seyrig was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1932. Her European parents encouraged an early understanding of social justice by sending her to a pacifist-run school as a teenager. With a sparse acting career in the 1950s, she met director Alain Renais in New York City, who asked her to star in his film The Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Renais, who by this time was known for his striking documentary about the Holocaust, Night and Fog (1956), and an unorthodox, dreamy filmmaking technique, placed Seyrig and her co-star Giorgio Albertazi in a stunning villa in costumes provided by the House of Chanel. The story is purposely convoluted, refusing to acknowledge what is real and what is fantasy. There is a romance, maybe; the man and the woman have met before, perhaps. Mirrors and shadows don’t act how they’re supposed to, and the viewer becomes immersed in the high-end dreamworld. Seyrig, whose appearance was striking and adaptable for any era and style, feels right at home in this elegant maze. Blessed with a head of naturally voluminous curls, her hair is dark and slicked down as she makes her way through the villa’s halls with grace and mystery. Her deep, raspy voice only contributed to the air of androgyny she carried with her throughout her career, even when playing the most glamorous, feminine characters in all of cinema.

Relatively speaking, Seyrig acted in few films throughout her career. In the 60s, she acted in a handful of films which made use of her multilingualism, including those of François Truffaut and Luis Buñuel. The years 1970-1971 perhaps displayed the height of her otherworldly, unplaceable femininity. She played the fairy godmother to Catherine Deneuve’s princess in Jacque Demy’s lucious, ornate, candy-colored Peau d’âne (1970) (Donkey Skin). In the film, set sometime in the 1600s, Seyrig is styled like a 1930s movie star, in a purple satin dress and foot-high lavender collar with bleach-blonde finger waves. It is over the top, but she wears the look with ease, as if she wore that sort of thing to bed every night. The following year, she would again play an anachronistic, high-femme time traveler in Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971) an erotic, queer, terribly stylish, cornerstone of the campy 1970s vampire cinematic canon. Seyrig is once again adorned like a 1930s countess who entrances all who meet her. The film falls short of becoming a true classic with its awkward script and subpar acting from other members of the cast, though Seyrig’s presence is so striking that one laments every time she exits the frame.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), in which a group of upper-class friends try, and fail, to eat a meal together, is one of two collaborations between Seyrig and Buñuel. Again, Seyrig returns as the elegant, elusive, icy blonde. That stylized perfection would be put aside with Seyrig’s first collaboration with Belgian-director Chantal Ackerman as a widowed mother questioning the monotony of her life in Jeanne Dielman. In this film, Seyrig ditches the designer clothes and peroxide in favor of auburn hair and the typical adornments of a housewife unconcerned with her outward appearance. She slouches, is slightly heavier, and completely transforms from the actress we have seen before. It is perhaps because of her ability to so effortlessly transform, from masculine to feminine, from elegant to plain, from modern to historic, that she is not as recognizable to casual film-goers as Anna Karina or Jeanne Moreau. 

Though, given that screenwriter Marguerite Duras once referred to Seyrig as the “reluctant muse” this may have been Seyrig’s plan all along. In modern terms, I compare Seyrig to French actress Adèle Haenel, whose last cinematic performance was in the Celine Sciamma directed masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). Disillusioned with the corruption and abuse of the French film industry, Haenel has stepped away from film acting and has been vocal about feminist issues. Similarly, Seyrig became an advocate for feminist causes during the 1970s, including the “Manifesto of the 343”, a petition signed by over three-hundred women who boldly declared to have had an abortion, which was illegal at the time. In 1975, Seyrig founded the feminist video collective Les Insoumuses (a French portmanteau that roughly translates to “disobedient muses”), which produced videos focused on women in media, labor, and reproductive rights. As a director, Seyrig made two films directly focused on feminist causes: Scum Manifesto (1976) (named after the radical feminist writing of the same name by Valerie Solanas), and Sois belle et tais-toi (1981) (Be Pretty and Shut Up) consisting of interviews with several women of the film industry. In interviews with Seyrig, which one can find online, she pushes back every claim that she is being too radical or unreasonable. Her voice is powerful, she does not falter or contradict herself. Though nowadays we are generally used to hearing celebrities discuss prominent social issues in interviews, at the time Seyrig was risking her career for her outspokenness. In her words, “le bonheur est l’indépendance”, or “happiness is independence”.

Seyrig’s last film performance was in Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia (1989) a film by experimental director Ulrike Ottinger, with whom Seyrig had previously collaborated in Freak Orlando (1981). She died of lung cancer the following year, the same year as another reclusive, hard-to-define actress who brought androgyny to the big screen back in the 1920s: Greta Garbo. Seyrig was only 58. While hardly what one would call a “star”, Seyrig’s legacy has proven to be long lasting throughout the world of international cinema and as an icon of second-wave feminism.


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