Once Again, the Lens Zooms In On '50s Movie Star Jean Seberg

Documentary links her life with currents in cinema and society

THE history of film, director Jean-Luc Godard once suggested, is the history of boys photographing girls.

The quip is oversimplified, but it sardonically sums up two of cinema's most enduring qualities. One is its habit of filling the screen with voyeuristic views of glamorous female stars. The other is its male-dominated power structure, allowing men to control movie content throughout the medium's history.

''From the Journals of Jean Seberg,'' a superb new documentary by Mark Rappaport, studies an actress who was photographed by some of the most powerful boys in the business, from Hollywood artists like Otto Preminger and Robert Rossen to French auteurs like Romain Gary and Godard himself.

They believed in her talent, but their movies didn't succeed in making her a full-fledged star. Meanwhile, her offscreen experiences - including broken marriages and persecution by the FBI for her left-leaning political activities - were as troubled as the melodramatic plots of her frequently downbeat films. Her life came to a sad and untimely end, and Rappaport's study links her tragedy with larger currents in both cinema and society.

The film begins with an account of Seberg's remarkable movie debut - as a 17-year-old newcomer playing Joan of Arc in Preminger's big-budget ''Saint Joan,'' chosen for the role from a pool of 18,000 applicants. The picture flopped, and critics blamed Seberg for seeming more like a Midwestern cheerleader than an earth-shaking crusader. ''Who in the world would follow this drum majorette into battle?'' asks Seberg's ''ghost,'' played in the documentary by Mary Beth Hurt, looking back on her career.

Preminger used Seberg again in ''Bonjour Tristesse,'' a more contemporary project in which she played a manipulative teenager. It did better than ''Saint Joan,'' but still left her an also-ran in the public eye.

What revived her fortunes was the unexpected enthusiasm of Godard, a young critic-turned-filmmaker who cast her opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in ''Breathless,'' about the enigmatic affair of a French hoodlum and an American student.

Using artfully selected clips to prove his point, Rappaport notes that Preminger coached Seberg in a highly unconventional move as they shot ''Bonjour Tristesse'' in 1958, having her look directly into the camera as if she shared a secret understanding with it. Godard loved self-reflective cinema, and asked Seberg to make the same gesture several times in ''Breathless,'' which was hailed in 1959 as a milestone in modernistic filmmaking.

''I was the first actress who returned the hard stare of the camera lens,'' says the Seberg figure in Rappaport's film. ''In that sense,'' she adds, ''even if you didn't hear of me, I became the first modern movie star.''

Rappaport continues the Seberg saga through such subsequent films as ''Lilith'' and ''Paint Your Wagon,'' not omitting the creepy ''Birds in Peru'' and other projects instigated by Gary during their marriage. He also sketches her somewhat naive political views, referring to belatedly released FBI documents as proof that she was badly harassed for her involvement with a radical branch of the civil-rights movement.

Rappaport pioneered this brand of exploratory cinema in his extraordinary ''Rock Hudson's Home Movies'' a few years ago.

While some of the historical details in his Seberg study are questionable - the heroine of Ingmar Bergman's sensuous ''Monika'' also gazed at the camera, for instance, seven years before ''Breathless'' hit the screen - his ability to interweave film excerpts, biographical facts, and historical contexts is virtuosic.

He spins long riffs on the ironic parallels between Seberg's career and those of Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, her peers in '60s political activism; and he analyzes a series of Clint Eastwood closeups with a creative care recalling Godard's study of a Fonda photograph in ''Letter to Jane,'' a film-essay not mentioned by Rappaport but relevant to many of his concerns.

Seberg's persona gets momentarily lost as ''Klute'' meets ''Barbarella'' meets Brigitte Bardot meets Ted Turner meets the Fonda workout tapes. But everything circles back to her in the end, and the revelations made during such detours speak volumes about popular film as metaphor and mirror of the culture that produces it.

* ''From the Journals of Jean Seberg'' has not been rated. It contains a little vulgar language, film clips with sexual activity, and discussion of sexual situations.

Moviegoers in the New York area can supplement the documentary with a superb Seberg retrospective at Film Forum. It runs for two weeks, March 15-28.

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