She floated, an elegant specter, through films by Alain Resnais, François Truffaut, and Joseph Losey, her rich, mellifluous voice a thrilling instrument. But she could also have fun being campy and bitchy in cult classics by dedicated avant-gardists. French actress Delphine Seyrig lent her magnetizing screen presence to the most challenging works of post-war European cinema. For decades before her death in 1990, her passionate feminism also fueled her work with noted women directors. This series of over 20 films (including her one directorial effort) honors a unique and fearless career.
Seyrig’s talent for combining empathy and aloofness was perfectly suited to a film culture where characters remain largely opaque to one another. In Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad (1961), she wanders through a baroque vacation spa, as a mysterious stranger tries to convince her that they once conducted a passionate affair there. Resnais’s Muriel (1963) is an absorbing portrait of a restless French culture, riven by both the memory of World War II and the recent defeat in Algeria. Seyrig plays a widowed antique dealer whose reunion with a former beau is complicated by the presence of both her unstable stepson and the old flame’s new young lover. Again, she’s a fascinating mass of contradictions—a reckless, would-be bourgeoise, yearning for lost love and giddily propelled toward the future.
No discussion of Seyrig’s oeuvre would be complete without noting her work with maverick German auteur Ulrike Ottinger. In both The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press (1984), a surreal satire of modern media culture, and Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1988), a sumptuous vision of life along the Trans-Siberian railroad, she’s the cool, commanding authority at the center of a host of wacky fantasies. And in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), as a bourgeois widow who turns one trick a day to help make ends meet, she gives perhaps her most sublime performance. The musical voice is largely silent, while the ordinary gestures of housekeeping become a poem of suppressed rage and beauty.