FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH JEAN SEBERG
You seem nervous when talking about your hometown. What were your parents like?
My mother chose Dorothy for my name. My father argued for Jean, rhyming me with freedom. Jean Dorothy Seberg. Neither talked much. The green sun smothered speech and sidewalks led to the piety of white steeples. Father ground himself to powder with mortar and pestle. Mother folded herself between bolts of cloth. I wanted to take off my skin in summer’s humidity, but the high ceilings and fans knew too much. Endlessly, they kept stirring the quiet. Everywhere growing went on—bee-wild pollination, the sex of the fields. It overwhelmed the mind. Thoughts reeked of fleece and skin and vegetable love.
After school I minded the drugstore’s hush, the cash register with its bell and wooden drawer. I took my turn at the soda counter scooping the cold smoke conflagration of ice cream into the lava of hot fudge. The movies were places where people actually talked.
Tell us about being 18 and working for Otto Preminger.
Preminger? Directors rarely muzzle themselves. They’re born on angry asymmetrical planets. He used my guilt. My blue eyes had absorbed the Iowa dirt reddened with Potawatomi blood. Not blue of sky or blue music, but the blue screaming of quiet.
I always yearned to act. I pretended to be my father’s daughter, but later would pluck his house from me, a fully engorged wood tick. I longed for the taste of orchid, the power of the tongue.
Did I tell you my mother taught piano? Yes, I acted in Sabrina and Picnic but already the glass coffin had sailed out into my future. The miscarriage. The waxen, pale girl. The madwoman was growing up inside the beautiful girl. Breakdowns. Mud devouring the orchids, nerves scissoring through.
I came from a short inheritance on stolen land, the violence of the Norwegian and Swede plow. The roots of the bluegrass and wild onion exploding like gunshots. It was how I feared the camera in the beginning. I thought it was a gun. I shied from Preminger too. When he and the camera came close I tried to hide. They would shoot me.
Talk about your role in Breathless. Discuss one reviewer’s statement: “I was seduced by the film’s indifference to holding my interest.”
The film’s mystique. La Nouvella Vague. Either dry earth or oily black, a thief gives you no oxygen to breathe. I played Patricia Franchini. A pretty American journalist. Not much of a stretch. As for the charming sociopath Michel Poiccard, he was played by Paul Belmondo. His whims like potato moths jittered with restlessness. He could never lie in the bedrooms of Iowa that empty themselves all day, where sheets are only for sleeping. The sociopath steals a car and when a motorcycle policeman stops him, one of those potato moths tells him to kill. He shoots the cop.
There are people who are vases of cattails or bowls of rocks. My father was a brass clock that worked from dawn to dusk. My mother kept her longing for pleasure secret. A spoon of rhubarb brightening her plate seemed out of place. Too seeped in its jelliness, a wound blissfully red.
Breathless is the long lung-sweetening cigarette. And boredom is the guiltiest of delights. I wanted the dirt of the ditch, the blue and the orange lilies called ditch mermaids. It was a sorrow I didn’t lie down in the dahlias and gladiolas when I could have. I regret not making love to the peonies and fox glove, the Queen Anne’s lace. Sunlight is the enemy of silk.
I knew four languages, spoke French without an accent. My screen roles never eclipsed a hip American journalist on a getaway with a sociopath. Damn.
Let’s talk about your dreams.
Here I am getting off the school bus with my best friend who lives in the country. Smell of manure in the air everywhere. We walk up the dirt lane past corncrib and oak with its swinging rope, toward the farmhouse. I am six years old and wave as the bus climbs the hill. When my friend vanishes I’m alone.
Overhead clouds mount each other like giant workhorses in tattered harnesses. They plow the blue of the sky. There is the milkhouse and the barn in all its mysteriousness—belly and pulley, cistern and loft. Then I am taken up into all the beauty and terror. I am riding in blue-dust clouds.
What is your connection to the Black Panthers?
Money, what else? I raised thousands for their cause, desirous to help the have-nots. The Black Nationalists whom I rented cars for and lent money to joked about me. I was the stupid white woman. The smoker who offers up her vocal cords.
Hoover followed me, the old voyeur in his black evening gowns. His hatchet hair cut on an anvil. He wanted to be bedded by a black man yet his racism was rancid. Thick-legged, he tried to “cheapen my image with the public.” He planted lies in newspapers. That the father of my baby was a Black Panther. Seven months pregnant, I swallowed barbiturates. Who would do that to their unborn child? I showed them how a girl could travel into white condiment with honey, how the bees can be lost and unable to find their way back to the hive.
Anyone can wear black tights and tiny napkin skirts. Wholesomeness always wants to turn bad
How did the FBI following you change you?
They cornered me in myself. I took out a cigarette and blew smoke rings at interviewers. I told them human contacts were impossible excepting the most superficial of relationships. No matter how repulsive the interior, we idolize the person whose exterior is most attractive.
Why else would you still be talking about me? Who made you ask these questions?
And J. Edgar Hoover?
He was a hunger pang always shadowing me. Crossing the bridge I sensed his left hand on my thigh, his other on his headphones. My breath tainted with dark Gauloise. My lovers excited him. If you looked inside him you would see diseased trees. A G-man tuxedo of gnarled limbs. His lipsticked mouth listened like an ear to plundered conversations.
What was it really like in the backseat of the Renault? There are websites now that claim the FBI murdered you.
I murdered myself. I fought sleep, imagined Joan of Arc, her eyes burning, her visions, the taste of French in my mouth, éclairs, her shorn head. Hardly a sinner I wanted the green wind to hear into me and take ear licks. I craved God to fill my hollow bones. Who doesn’t want to be flung? To be lightning-struck, a tree halved, tongue of rope or bark-skin split from trunk.
Now I’m dying for Marshalltown and the quaint house where six of us ate at the round table and my father and mother prayed. How I came to understand their drugstore’s divinity, the sacrament’s wafer. How I discovered forgiveness. Percocet spilled into an ashtray along with Talwin and Ativan. Percocet, a bird-of-paradise. Valium’s lavender bruises. Talwin a pink-orange sunset. Nineteen pills, enough for one day. The first pill always felt like the best one when Paris was dark. Brown gulls rose from my heart where all had been fog.
In the Renault I ingested enough alcohol and Seconal to kill five men. No rear windows or giants anywhere. Stumbling, trying to run I understood that trees could pick up their roots and come after me. Yet the air was still, the water serene. Before me lay a swamp, a primordial asparagus froth. Trees eerily watching. The dull green people had disappeared.
Then shadows flickered--birds began gliding swimmingly together. Soon I would become clean.
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