Where to begin with Delphine Seyrig

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or subgenre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: Delphine Seyrig – film icon, feminist

Adam Scovell
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Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Why this might not seem so easy

Few performers captured the heights of 1960s and 70s European art cinema as totally as Delphine Seyrig. Born in Beirut in 1932, the French star brought a sense of enigmatic glamour and intelligence to films by many of the most celebrated continental directors of the time, including Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras, François Truffaut, Chantal Akerman and Luis Buñuel.

Having cut her teeth at the Comédie de Saint-Étienne and the Centre Dramatique de l’Est, her real break came from her work at the Actors Studio in New York. After appearing in Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s short collaboration with Jack Kerouac, Pull My Daisy (1959), she was soon spotted on stage in New York by a young Alain Resnais – a key figure in the early French New Wave – and cast in his cryptic arthouse puzzle-piece Last Year at Marienbad (1961).

The film led to stardom for Seyrig and initiated her run of pioneering films. If her work is difficult to get to grips with, it’s only because the wealth of material she worked on is astonishing and no single film will give a complete overview of her range. Even filmgoers familiar with her most iconic performances may not be aware of Seyrig’s own turns behind the camera, in a run of politically charged projects in the late 1970s and early 80s.

The best place to start – Last Year at Marienbad

Seyrig could have done no better for a first feature film than Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. A collaboration with nouveau roman writer and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, the film set the benchmark for early 60s arthouse cinema with its dreamy atmosphere, ambiguous narrative and uncompromising vision.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Seyrig shines as ‘A’, or “la femme brune” as Robbe-Grillet describes her in his later published cine-roman of the script. She glides through the film’s chateau setting as smoothly as Resnais’ camera, like a literal ghost in the memory of ‘X’ (Giorgio Albertazzi) who insists that he met her the previous year in the spa retreat of Marienbad. Soon time and space disintegrate as alternative happenings of the past and future fold in upon the story.

Dressed in clothes designed by Coco Chanel, Seyrig is an ethereal, almost phantasmagorical vision. Her performance is delicate and intricate, bringing humanity to Robbe-Grillet’s icy, calculated vision of fading memories and hopes.

What to watch next

One of Seyrig’s great collaborators was another nouveau roman novelist and filmmaker, Marguerite Duras. Duras’ India Song (1975) makes for a perfect companion to Last Year at Marienbad, being an inverted, colonial take on the story of a mansion haunted by romantic memories. Similarly, Seyrig drifts through the film as the various male characters flitter around her in what is another mesmerising piece of work. Duras’ underrated La Musica (1967) is just as effective, following a couple who meet for one last time in the town they lived in before separating. Again, it’s suffused with ambiguity, though, unlike in India Song, Duras works heavily with close-ups, allowing Seyrig to shine with detailed minutiae of emotion.

India Song (1975)

India Song (1975)

It’s a more daunting prospect, but Seyrig’s most accomplished role is undoubtedly as the single mother in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). This four-hour film is a patient and methodical portrayal of domesticity masking something darker and more visceral. It’s one of the most celebrated films of 1970s European cinema, depending for much of its power on Seyrig’s detailed and rigorous performance, whether simply walking down the street or cooking in real time. Everything is rendered with an unusual, haunted melancholy that lingers long after viewing.

Seyrig is also an essential presence in Resnais’ Marienbad follow-up, Muriel (1963), a film famed for its fractured editing, temporal lapses and its early addressing of the recently concluded Algerian War. If one thing seems consistent in Seyrig’s choice of roles, it’s in their regular engagement with political discourse. The same aspects can be seen in Seyrig’s work with Luis Buñuel, especially as one of the endlessly walking bourgeoisie in his Oscar-winning satire The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).

Muriel (1963)

Muriel (1963)

She also appears in smaller roles for canonical directors of the time, including for Buñuel in his pilgrimage tale The Milky Way (1969) and as the brief older love interest for Truffaut’s alter-ego, Antoine Doinel, in Stolen Kisses (1968). Most effectively, she turns up for the affair with Dirk Bogarde’s Oxford don in Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967), appearing in an innovative montage detailing a brief encounter in London where the dialogue has been radically shifted into the voiceover, making the scenario seem ghostly and inevitable.

Seyrig was not confined to arthouse roles though, and made her mark in a number of genre films. She excels as the seductive vampire in Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), as the campy fairy godmother to Catherine Deneuve in Jacques Demy’s fantastical musical Donkey Skin (1970) and in several 1970s thrillers, including The Day of the Jackal (1973) and The Black Windmill (1974).

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

Finally, it would be impossible to discuss Seyrig’s work without mentioning her activism and the films that resulted from it. Her feminist politics fed into her own directorial work, in particular with fellow filmmaker Carole Roussopoulos. Whether in the retelling of Valerie Solanas’s S.C.U.M Manifesto (1976) or in Maso et Miso vont en bateau (1975) – a riposte to a French television show lamenting the Year of the Woman in France – her work behind the camera has been uncompromisingly radical. This culminated in Sois belle et tais-toi (1981), a lengthy interview piece collating the experiences of a range of women in the film industry, very much foreshadowing #MeToo but in the grainy, video aesthetic of the era. It cemented Seyrig’s reputation as a vital and visionary voice both behind and in front of the camera.

Where not to start

As with her working relationship with Duras, Seyrig worked several times with Chantal Akerman after Jeanne Dielman. By no means her only musical (the other being Demy’s Donkey Skin), Akerman’s Golden Eighties (1986) is a weaker entry for both artists. Set in a Brussels shopping mall, the scenario feels somewhat ironic, but the bite of Akerman’s earlier films is lacking and Seyrig is left at odds with what feels like a deeply traditionalist narrative. More vital from the same year is their collaboration Letters Home, a release echoing Akerman’s earlier essay film News from Home (1977). Dramatising correspondences sent between the poet Sylvia Plath and her mother Aurelia (with Seyrig playing the latter), this would be the star’s penultimate feature role before her death in 1990.

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