Jean Seberg Remains Wonderfully Commanding in ‘Lilith’


Rarely screened, Robert Rossen’s fascinatingly fractured Lilith (1964) centers on a theme — women, sex, and psychopathology — somewhat in vogue at the time. Two months before Lilith‘s release, Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie, starring Tippi Hedren as a “frigid” habitual swindler eventually cured by Sean Connery, arrived in theaters; three years earlier, Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass featured Natalie Wood being sent to an asylum, her crack-up the result of her unconsummated lust for Warren Beatty, making his feature debut.

Beatty also co-stars in Lilith, acting opposite Jean Seberg in the title role: He plays Vincent, a wounded, unmoored Army vet who takes a job at Poplar Lodge, a posh mental institution; she is a patient there, a schizophrenic and serial seductress prone to referring to herself in the third person: “She wants to leave the mark of her desire on every living creature.”

That line, like much of Rossen’s movie (which would be the last by the director, best known for 1961’s The Hustler), is at once blunt and oddly removed. The story of Lilith — a man’s love for a manipulative madwoman makes him go insane — may not be especially gripping, but the way that it’s told highlights an intriguingly perverse sensibility.

Bizarre angles, abrupt transitions, and superimpositions abound; a few times the residents and staff of Poplar Lodge are scattered in a pattern on the sanitarium’s grounds that recalls the arrangement of bodies in that ultimate puzzle film Last Year at Marienbad (1961). But it is Seberg — haunting and fey, eons removed from the pixieish sphinx she played in Godard’s Breathless (1960) — who most indelibly imprints the film with otherworldliness.

Directed by Robert Rossen
July 17 and 18, Anthology Film Archives