The Criterion Shelf Starring Delphine Seyrig

The Criterion Shelf: Starring Delphine Seyrig

ThatShelf writers Bil Antoniou and Rachel Ho took a look at 15 works featuring the unjustly forgotten actor and activist

It took a while for Delphine Seyrig to become Delphine Seyrig, and that’s not a bad thing. In a business mainly preoccupied with youth and beauty, particularly celebrating and quickly using up female youth and beauty, the excitement of an ingénue who gets it right on their first try at movie stardom is often a matter of much-lauded excitement: entire festivals at Cannes have been spent celebrating the genius newcomer (it’s even lampooned in a very bad Henry Jaglom film), and entire awards seasons have treated teenagers who can walk and talk at the same time like miracles from heaven (I’m not saying that Kate Hudson, Hailee Steinfeld and Saoirse Ronan aren’t good; I’m saying that people always act like a precocious young person is always the first of their kind).

Actors who start off well but age like fine wine, on the other hand, rarely get the same level of buzz despite the fact that it’s one of the most rewarding experiences for cinema fans who follow their careers: some of us watched those Twilight movies and had nothing to grab onto until the stars of the franchise started working with auteurs, showing off so much more depth as a result, but Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are actually rare cases of succeeding with age.  Others, like Samantha Mathis, Kate Bosworth, Selma Blair were all duds as young romantic heroines who turned forty and ripened into complicated personalities that the business had zero idea what to do with.

Delphine Seyrig made her first film at twenty-four and had her break-out starring role at thirty, but other than her first starring moment, in Alain Resnais’s Last Year At Marienbad, she didn’t play the roles she would be most associated with until closer to her forties. With her delicate, fine-boned features and that voice that sounded like drops of the finest champagne falling on silk, she always had a bit of an older air about her anyway (her performance as an aging widow in Muriel doesn’t need that awful grey wig to pull off her sense of a haunted past), so it makes sense that her stardom, niche and temporary as it was, would happen at what the industry considers an advanced age.

The voice that I mention, one of her most appealing qualities, is also memorable because her accent in any language had a mysterious lilt to it that was the result of a globetrotting childhood. Most associated as a star of French cinema, she was actually born in Beirut to an Alsatian father, who was there as a cultural attaché, and a Swiss mother. Her father’s work took her to New York City when she was ten before they returned to Lebanon when she was a teenager, and attended a French Protestant school. After high school she studied at the Comedie de Saint-Etienne under L’Atalante star Jean Dasté (who appears with her in Muriel), made her debut on television on an early Sherlock Holmes serial and went back to New York City to study at the Actors Studio. It was there that she met Robert Frank and made her film debut, co-starring with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the little-seen Pull My Daisy.

Her life in Manhattan also introduced her to Alain Resnais, who cast her in Marienbad and made her a household name, but with that dark hair and Garbo-like makeup, Seyrig isn’t quite recognizable as the low-lidded beauty with the gorgeous coif of golden curls that many of us know and love in Donkey Skin and Stolen Kisses. Resnais buries the actress’s depth and charisma in this role, but he more than makes up for it when Muriel, which repeats Marienbad‘s obsession with memory, takes a more humane approach to its experimentation and shows Seyrig off as a masterful performer, earning her the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival for the role. Between that and Truffaut casting her as the hot older woman who steals Antoine Doinel’s heart and loins (at least temporarily) in his third Antoine Doinel film, Seyrig’s iconic status was set, and the campy indulgence of Daughters of Darkness was naturally just around the corner. Thanks to her proficiency in French, German and English she was available to work anywhere in Europe or America, rarely playing leads but racking up roles in films with some of the art form’s most admired filmmakers: besides Resnais and Truffaut there was Demy, Bunuel, Losey and her best-known Hollywood work, a cameo in Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 thriller The Day Of the Jackal.

At the height of her fame in the seventies, Seyrig’s appearances in The Discreet Charm of the Bougeoisie or Daughters would have been the ones people associated her with the most, the elegant, blond bourgeoise, but today she’s mentioned even more often for the role that had ties to her own personal life as an advocate for feminist causes. In Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Seyrig worked hard at enacting her character’s household rituals with the kind of easy abandon that the director wanted from her; the Criterion Channel doesn’t include Sami Frey’s on-set video diary of the making of the film in their Seyrig collection, but it’s on the channel and fans of the film really should watch it, to see the painstaking efforts the actress took to get every move right. In the film is included a terrific break from filming when Seyrig is interviewed on the set by a journalist asking her about her political devotion to feminism; at the time, Seyrig had signed the groundbreaking 1971 Manifesto of the 343, confirming publicly that she had had an illegal abortion. Around the time of Jeanne Dielman, she took part in a video editing workshop at the home of Swiss filmmaker Carole Roussopoulos which led to the two of them and director Ioana Wieder forming the Les Insoumuses collective, from which a number of projects sprang, including an adaptation of Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto and the documentary Be Pretty and Shut Up, which is included here (their collective’s name is a pun more or less meaning “disobedient muses”). In 1983 she was part of the group that established the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir, an archive of filmed and recorded work by women.

It would have been wonderful to see what appreciation Seyrig could have generated by now were she still alive, given that her international qualifications would have landed her plenty of work in the Netflix era of filmmaking. Her directorial career might have flourished and, possibly, her politics being more mainstream would have brought her praise (or, equally possible, derision, as is often the case with feminists coming up against the younger generations, as happened with fellow manifesto signer Catherine Deneuve). Sadly, Seyrig’s death from ovarian cancer at the age of 58 denied us all of these possibilities, and the slump of obscure and little-remembered works in which she appeared during her final years was never reversed by a triumphant comeback. As a result, Criterion’s tribute to her, celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of her birth and marking the thirtieth anniversary of her death, is mostly made up of the usual suspects with a few thrown in for good measure. Most of them, however, are usually focused on as markers of other careers, namely their directors, so it’s without a doubt exciting to watch them all again with a particular focus on this under-appreciated actor’s contribution to them.

Reviews by Bil Antoniou, except those by Rachel Ho, where noted.



Last Year At Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)

Rachel Ho: I’ve never seen a film like Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad. It’s been categorized as “surrealism” and “experimental” by contemporary critics and those of the ‘60s, and lives up to those labels and then some. Taking place in a cathedral-like, baroque hotel, we follow a woman (Seyrig), a handsome man who tries to convince the woman of a past encounter (Giorgio Albertazzi), and another man who may or may not be the woman’s husband (Sacha Pitoëff). While the handsome man narrates the film and there are bits of dialogue throughout, Marienbad has a silent film-era quality to it. The characters move very slowly but pointedly. The camera follows them in a smooth and winding manner. It is renowned for its ambiguous mystery and unresolved ending. When the film ended, I was unsure as to what I had just seen but certain I had witnessed something extraordinary at the same time. Haunting and uncomfortable, it will certainly test the patience of modern audiences, but if you let the movie in, you’ll be greatly rewarded.


Muriel or the Time of Return (Alain Resnais, 1963)

Resnais once again touches on themes of memory and regret in an experimental, avant-garde manner, though this time the narrative is more linear and deeply attached to its characters’ emotional pain. Seyrig deservedly won the Best Actress prize at Venice for her performance as a Boulogne antique dealer who receives a visit from an ex-lover who stimulates memories of their painful parting during the war. Their haunted memories are contrasted with the trauma that her stepson has just brought back from fighting in Algeria, the brittle emotional state of these characters represented in the fractured but elegant editing style. Restored to glorious perfection in 2015, this film still feels contemporary and fresh (despite the overuse of operatic singing on the soundtrack).


Accident (Joseph Losey, 1967)

Harold Pinter’s rumination on masculinity finds its best cinematic expression in this pristine film by Joseph Losey, starring Dirk Bogarde as a university professor whose mid-life crisis is sparked up by the impending arrival of his third child with his confident wife (Vivien Merchant), his virile young student (Michael York) falling in love with a beautiful Austrian aristocrat (Jacqueline Sassard) who has just joined his class, and his amoral colleague and rival (Stanley Baker) sparking up an affair with her. Seyrig appears in a cameo during a brief interlude where Bogarde visits London and has an adulterous date with an old flame, her dialogue spoken in voiceover as she takes part in a quick and dissatisfying caprice to soothe his blistering insecurities. It’s a weighty, thoughtful film whose every shot feels carefully placed and every tiny prop feels purposely included, it gleams with high-minded thematic bravado that is far more rewarding than it is pretentious.


The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972)

Rachel Ho: Luis Buñuel had a really funny sense of humour. Ten years prior to this film, he released The Exterminating Angel, about an elegant dinner party wherein the guests are inexplicably unable to leave. In Discreet Charm, Buñuel again centres his film around well-to-do fine diners, but in this instance, their attempts at dining are constantly being thwarted, whether by military exercises or the death of innkeepers. The group of socialites grow increasingly frustrated by each instance of denying them their dinners. Buñuel’s disdain for the upper class in his films is an obvious bird flip to the ruling class of Francoist Spain. He is scathing in his dialogue, emphasizing the hypocrisy and entitlement of the affluent. Upon release, it was a hit among audiences and critics and picked up numerous awards, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and a couple BAFTAs for Best Actress (Stéphane Audran) and Best Original Screenplay. It’s one notable film of many in Buñuel’s storied career, and it is at once hilarious, disturbing, and unfortunately, still relevant to us today.


Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)

Rachel Ho: In Jeanne Dielman, we follow the daily routine of a housewife over the course of three days. Who Jeanne (a truly phenomenal Seyrig) is, we really don’t know — even her name is never spoken, only mentioned in a letter she reads to her son. We learn that Jeanne is a prostitute in the afternoon to support her and her son. And while such a reveal would be scandalous in any other film, in Jeanne Dielman, it’s simply another task on Jeanne’s list, which she approaches with the same matter-of-factness as making the coffee and taking out the trash. By day 2, we start to see the seams of the cracks: Jeanne is unraveling before our eyes. Written and directed by Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman has been lauded as a feminist masterpiece. It’s an entrancing epic that has a lot to say without saying very much.



Stolen Kisses (Francois Truffaut, 1968)

The incorrigibly boyish Antoine Doinel lives a life vulnerable to change and even more vulnerable to the spells cast on him by the beautiful women he is constantly meeting. One of the most delightful is midway through Truffaut’s third film starring Jean-Pierre Leaud as Doinel, in which he gets a job at a shoe store owned by Michael Lonsdale and has a sexy affair with the boss’s elegant, confident wife (Seyrig). The understated class with which he initiates the liaison and the bourgeois froideur that she maintains until Doinel is ready to move on makes it one of the greatest actress’s signature roles, one which feels tailor made for her.


Donkey Skin (Jacques Demy, 1970)

Jacques Demy’s retelling of the classic Charles Perrault fairy tale is blessed with touches of his own mischievous humour. Catherine Deneuve plays a princess whose widower father (Jean Marais) wants to marry her, so she runs away with the help of her glamorous fairy godmother (Seyrig) and takes on the disguise of a scullery maid who wears the skin of a donkey. Thankfully she catches the eye (and stomach) of a handsome prince (the late Jacques Perrin, reuniting with Deneuve from Demy’s Young Girls of Rochefort) and it brightens her future prospects. There’s no impressive villain and the challenge by which Peau D’Ane wins her husband isn’t all that exciting, and Demy does away with heart-wrenching conflict and focuses instead on the delightful visuals and the story’s highly unsubtle allegory of a girl’s passage into womanhood. At first confused in her adolescent innocence about why marrying her father would be such a bad thing, our heroine is instructed by the worldly Seyrig, whose jazz age costumes mark her as sexually confident, in the ways of decent adulthood. Only in her late thirties, roles such as this one and Stolen Kisses would come to define Seyrig as the sexy but sage older woman in the decade to come.


A Doll’s House (Joseph Losey, 1973)

Ibsen, who captured 19th-century theatre audiences with characters who expressed their exact emotional reality without hiding behind societal conventions, is the perfect match for star Jane Fonda, who made a notorious figure of herself in the early seventies for also cutting through the pretensions of political double-speak with her activist efforts. She stars as Nora, the pampered wife of a small town banker (David Warner), who overspends on presents for her children and to beautify her stiflingly adorned house, and cuts a gorgeous figure as a decorative wife and mother. When a vengeful employee of the bank (Edward Fox) threatens to reveal a past indiscretion and permanently ruin her upstanding-to-a-fault husband’s reputation, it puts Nora into a moral crisis that at first threatens her survival until her owning up to it guarantees it instead; for Ibsen, delegitimizing women’s humanity through proscribed gender roles is damaging to them, to men, to family and community. Seyrig is superb in a supporting role as a confidante of Nora’s whose opposite experience of life in hardship and penury helps clarify Nora’s heroic journey, a rare opportunity for the actress to eschew her usual flawless glamour (decorative blond wig notwithstanding) and show off an impressive strength embodying a theatrical classic.


Be Pretty And Shut Up (Delphine Seyrig, 1976)

Rachel Ho: One of only three directorial efforts by Seyrig, Be Pretty and Shut Up (Sois belle et tais-toi) is a documentary film containing Seyrig’s interviews with over 20 actresses (including Jane Fonda and Shirley MacLaine) about the sexism they experienced in the film industry. Just as known for her feminism as her stardom, Seyrig used her celebrity status and persuasion to advocate for women’s rights, in the film industry and beyond. Seyrig gives actresses the platform to speak their outrage and frustration with the heavily male-dominated industry without impeachment: Jane Fonda speaks candidly about a makeup artist who wanted her to break her jaw in order to create a more hollowed cheek look, Canadian actress Luce Guilbeault discusses the challenges of wanting to inject her characters (often prostitutes or alcoholics) with practicality before being shot down by male producers who insist that the “dirty woman” was what men wanted.  It provides some great insight into what actresses went through—and while the film is almost 50 years old, it’s also a great reminder of what little progress has actually been made.



The Milky Way (Luis Buñuel, 1969)

Bolstered by the international success of Belle De Jour, Buñuel spent his last decade of filmmaking in an even more provocative mode than ever before and one of his naughtiest efforts is this insouciant take on Catholic dogma. Two modern-day beggars cross Europe on their way to Spain where they want to walk the Camino de Santiago, constantly distracted by strange and, what else, surreal experiences that include a “Priscillian” forest ritual, a car accident that puts them in the way of the devil himself, hunters who meet the Virgin Mary in the woods, the staff at a fine dining establishment arguing about Christ’s corporeality while preparing to serve, priests spouting niche opinions taken from actual obscure Catholic texts, and even the Marquis de Sade (played, in perfect casting, by Michel Piccoli). Seyrig appears in the film’s final moments, billed as the “harlot” who dispels the men’s notions of thinking that their pilgrimage will amount to nearly as much as she has to offer. Buñuel would use her humorous elegance to much more powerful effect in their next collaboration.


India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975)

Duras, a master of intellectual eroticism, challenges all but her most devoted fans with this staid, slow-going epic of intimate proportions in which voiceover gives us the story over a series of perfectly composed tableaux. Seyrig, filling in for an unavailable Dominique Sanda, plays a diplomat’s wife in 1930s India who indulges in a series of love affairs that reflect the slow disappearance of colonial rule. It’s mostly posing, and it’s boring as all hell, but it looks great and pushes pretension to the other extreme of being impossible to resist.


Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kumel, 1971)

Seyrig gives one of her best-known performances as a vampire with a wardrobe even more savage than her bloodlust in this silly but stylish melodrama. A newlywed couple miss their boat to cross the channel and spend a few days at a nearly abandoned hotel in an equally abandoned off-season Ostende. Seyrig and her hot goth igor Andrea Rau show up and the elegant lady with the bright red nails immediately makes eyes at the bride of the couple (Danielle Ouimet), her desire for the girl’s flesh not nearly as dangerous as the sadistic tendencies of her conflicted husband (John Karlen). Its nudity capitalizes on the trend of European soft-core craze of the era, but the stylish photography gives it, if not depth or class, at least a sense of genuine artistic effort.


Freak Orlando (Ulrike Ottinger, 1981)

Rachel Ho: Structured as five episodes, seemingly unconnected but for the titular character played by Magdalena Montezuma, taking on a different persona complete with physical transformations. Orlando goes from a cone-headed lady with seven dwarves to a two-headed prophet to a man who falls in love with a Siamese twin, each encountering their own predicaments. The film is filled with characters of varying physical conditions paraded around to generate a reaction from audiences. It’s hard to know what to make of Freak Orlando, beneath the absurdity and shock value, director Ulrike Ottinger explores some interesting concepts and plays with our prejudices. And while the concepts and commentary work better in theory than in practice—for fans of Ottinger, it’s worth a watch.


Golden Eighties (Chantal Akerman, 1986)

This delightful, brightly colourful musical is set in a shopping mall where two stores sit opposite each other—a high-end clothing boutique run by Charles Denner and Seyrig, and a busy hair salon in which three women in love with Seyrig’s son Robert work. Robert is having an affair with the salon’s manager Lili, but she’s the mistress of a married, shady businessman and he gets tired of waiting for her to commit to him and proposes marriage to the doe-eyed Mado (pop singer Lio), who immediately agrees. Akerman’s lyrics feel like inspired improvisations against Marc Hérouet’s pop-happy score, but in case you’re worried that the contemplative, experimental filmmaker has gone mainstream with this genre delight, rest assured, she has neither the happy ending of Hairspray or the rich melodrama of Jacques Demy to offer, instead allowing all this effort put into the pursuit of love and commerce to wind down to unimportant, but survivable, banality.


Seven Women Seven Sins (1986)

This omnibus film contains seven shorts by female filmmakers who have each been assigned one of the seven deadly sins, which they attempt to explore from a contemporary perspective. Some of the shorts fall flat, particularly Helke Sander’s silly take on Gluttony set in the garden of Eden and Valie Export’s satiric take on Lust, but the best of them make it worth watching: Bette Gordon’s Greed shows off her command of complicated tension between female characters, Chantal Akerman’s Sloth is lovingly photographed, and Maxi Cohen’s powerful, shocking Anger is an unforgettable experience in which New Yorkers tell the director about the devastating experiences of their life that have caused them unending emotional pain. Seyrig appears in Ulrike Ottinger’s concluding piece on Pride, which as with the director’s other entry in this collection, is an ornate, detailed and frustrating exercise in interminable pageantry.

Watch The Criterion Channel’s Starring Delphine Seyrig tribute now!