Philippe Garrel Gets Up Close With Jean Seberg and Canadian Documentarians Wonder Whether the Second Wave Has Crested


Two rarities playing on repertory screens this week, both made in the mid-1970s, forge a bizarre alliance: One is about the feminine mystique; the other, The Feminine Mystique.

Receiving its first-ever theatrical release in the U.S., Philippe Garrel’s Les Hautes Solitudes (1974), showing at Metrograph in a new DCP restoration, takes one of the signature enchantments of the post–Nouvelle Vague director’s work to its extreme. Garrel’s films, as demonstrated in his most recent, 2015’s In the Shadow of Women, are invariably populated by faces to get lost in, striking visages further distinguished by exquisite planes and angles. For the entirety of its 80 silent minutes, Les Hautes Solitudes consists of nothing but close-ups, in grainy black-and-white, of four hauntingly beautiful people: Nico, the Teutonic chanteuse with the sepulchral voice and Garrel’s lover and muse for most of the decade; the Continental actors Laurent Terzieff and Tina Aumont; and, as the project’s fragile fulcrum, its héroïne malheureuse, Jean Seberg, the native Iowan (and longtime resident of France), here eons removed from the double-crossing pixie she played in Godard’s Breathless (1960).

As the title of Garrel’s film — best translated as “the high” or “the elevated” solitudes, a concept inspired by the director’s reading of Nietzsche — would suggest, Seberg is primarily shown in a kind of lofty, though debilitating, isolation. (So too are her three “co-stars,” of whom Aumont receives the most screen time.) Born in 1938, Seberg, who began her career as the protégée of Otto Preminger, was only in her mid-thirties when Garrel shot Les Hautes Solitudes, but her mien conveys some of the real-life horrors she had been enduring. Beginning in the late 1960s, the J. Edgar Hoover–led FBI set out to destroy her, outraged by the actress’s financial support of the Black Panther Party and her romantic involvement with African-American activists. The agency succeeded: She overdosed on barbiturates in 1979 in her Renault. Seberg would not be found by the Paris police, who ruled her death “a probable suicide,” until ten days later.

Some of Seberg’s anguish in Garrel’s film is obviously performed, never more so than when we first see her, roughly five minutes in, after Nico’s sole appearance and Terzieff’s initial one: Lying in bed, Seberg wakes and thrashes about, her actions calling to mind a not particularly successful Actors Studio audition. The histrionics, though, are kept to a minimum; the real drama of Les Hautes Solitudes, its power and allure, emerges when Seberg does very little but look directly at the camera. That gaze returned to the lens became something of a trademark early in the actress’s career: Preminger instructed her to stare blankly back during a scene in Bonjour Tristesse (1958), an action that she made even more defiant — and cryptic — at the end of Breathless. Seberg’s steady looks in Garrel’s film have more affect: At various times she appears pleading, appeasing, or despondent, at once transparently vulnerable and guardedly enigmatic. Les Hautes Solitudes is both ravishing portraiture and wordless biography, a life and aura distilled to glances and gestures.

Some American Feminists, screening at Light Industry on Wednesday, offers another kind of study in miniature — of enormous ideas — setting out to assess the successes, schisms, and impasses of the movement’s second wave. Made by an all-female crew and produced by the National Film Board of Canada, this hour-long documentary was shot in New York City in 1975 and ’76 and features conversations with six high-profile feminists, most of them at the vanguard of women’s liberation and several the authors of its landmark texts : Ti-Grace Atkinson, Rita Mae Brown, Betty Friedan, Margo Jefferson, Lila Karp, and Kate Millett.

Their words are unfailingly brilliant and precise; the tone is alternately impassioned or rueful. Brown speaks first: “If feminism needs anything, it’s diversity,” she declares, before recounting the movement’s depleting divisiveness and infighting. Although the incident is never mentioned explicitly in the film, Brown joined an informal group of radical lesbian feminists in 1970 to protest remarks made by Friedan that the National Organization for Women had to distance itself from the sapphically inclined. As the author of 1963’s The Feminine Mystique, Friedan is frequently, admiringly acknowledged in the documentary as a second-wave pioneer — “Simone de Beauvoir explained the world, Betty Friedan the U.S.,” Millett notes. But she is also occasionally pointed to as an increasingly obsolescent figure: “What Betty called ‘a problem without a name’ became a movement without an idea, without an ideology,” Atkinson admonishes.

Publishing Amazon Odyssey, her early collection of writings, in 1974, Atkinson is the most mournful of the group, lamenting that feminism may now be in a “fallow period.” (Earlier in the decade, after resigning from a radical feminist group she had founded, Atkinson proclaimed, “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.”) Jefferson, an editor at Newsweek at the time of filming and the only woman of color among the documentary’s half-dozen interlocutors, speaks with icy, elegant fury, quoting this line from Kay Lindsey during one of her sit-down interviews: “The white woman is the sexual object and the black woman is the sexual laborer.” The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1995, Jefferson expands on her involvement in the women’s movement in her shrewd 2015 memoir, Negroland. She’ll be at Light Industry to introduce Some American Feminists, a chronicle of a specific moment in another era whose contradictions remain with us still.

Les Hautes Solitudes
Directed by Philippe Garrel
The Film Desk
Metrograph, February 24–March 2

Some American Feminists
Directed by Luce Guilbeault, Nicole Brossard, and Margaret Wescott
Light Industry, February 22