Reading Jean’s Face

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Jeez, talk about arty.  The 1968 cult oddity Birds in Peru (its American title, the full one, is Birds Go to Die in Peru—see what I mean) is grim, lofty, and slow, and starts with a scene of Jean Seberg fucking on the beach:

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I use that crude copulative word deliberat(iv)ely.  The opening shot is of a White Face, seemingly floating in fuzzy air (though the fuzziness may be due to what looks like a cut, cropped print on YouTube).  This Face gradually moves away to reveal another:  Seberg’s twisted visage, facing ours.  It’s then we register that the first Face is a mask on the back of a man’s head, while below him is Seberg, twitching in erotic agony.  The two are screwing away, and I gather this scene was considered hot stuff for its era (BIP was one of the first films given an X rating under the then-new MPAA ratings code).  Throughout the scene Seberg’s own mask-like face, when not in rictus-like contortions, stares at the camera, which also cuts to her outstretched hand gripping the sand, to three other men lying prone near her, and to a dead bird in a corner of the frame.  It’s Sex and Death, you see, squeezed onto the screen, and it’s all very Significant and Portentous.  The film may be delving into the semi-pornographic but it’s urging us to see Art.  Just read the Signs.

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I admit, it’s a bit disconcerting to watch a known star exposed in such fashion to our gaze.  Of which discomfort the film is maliciously aware:  As the man climaxes Seberg keeps staring at Us, the audience voyeurs, a Gioconda smile fluttering on her lips.  Despite her displayed writhings, she hasn’t achieved orgasm, and we later learn the significant fact that she can’t.  Seems she’s a rich, unhappy, nympho wife, who can’t get satisfaction, no matter how many people she screws.  She’s been traveling round the world seeking someone who can thrill her, her used victims scattered like a trail of broken bottles.  Now she’s literally beached in Peru, gang-banging four men (all dressed in costumes for yesterday’s Carnival—it’s the first day of Lent, see…), her arms splayed to either side as if nailed to a sandy cross.  More sand decorously covers breasts and pubic area (she’s apparently nude, but only so much).  At dawn, the exhausted men leave, one of them tossing a long black feather onto her mons Veneris, which lands just so.  Please make a note of that.  You will be quizzed later on the Meaning Of It All.

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Thus are we graphically introduced to Seberg’s character and to her central question—just who or what is she?  Is she the Eternal Feminine?  The Dark Enigma, the Devouring Maw of Being, the Destructive Fatale whose appetites can never be satisfied?  She might symbolically be an Angel of Death (her movie husband describes her as having an angel’s face), who drains men of life while giving nothing in return—because she’s this great, empty vessel of numb desire.  Or perhaps (as indicated by the film’s auteur), she symbolizes the “never ending, never satisfied quest for human fulfillment.”  Whatever.  It’s enough to make us realize that, by film’s end, someone’s gonna end up Dead.

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It’s obvious why the film was rated X for 1968.  We watch the wife run through six or seven guys, including a failed, unemployed poet, as well as one gal, the madam of a beachfront brothel, in under 24 hours.  Her middle-aged husband trails after her, accompanied by a snide young chauffeur who once tried to bed the wife but couldn’t, because of impotence or something (the film’s a bit obscure about that).  Husband and chauffeur (who are on very familiar terms), engage in long, gossipy car rides and beach strolls, the gist of their chatter being that Jean has fucked her way across most of Europe and South America without erotic success (“It’s the last time I’m touring the world with her,” hubby grumbles).  She now has an understanding with her spouse that he will have his chauffeur kill her because he’s fed up with her randy escapades in the world’s expensive Hot Spots.  I can’t say I blame him, as he’s probably paying for it all.

Birds in Peru was written and directed by Seberg’s then-husband (her second), the novelist and wanna-be film auteur Romain Gary, who adapted it from one of his short stories; and if this was meant to portray his wife and their marriage, well, I’m not surprised they split.  You have to wonder what was going on.  The film is all about Seberg, in a way that borders on the queasily obsessive (“There was something distinctly unhealthy about the whole project,” says an observer in David Richards’s Seberg biography).  The camera consumes Seberg, whether she’s strolling on the beach, tossing her head in a come-hither pose, or humping (frequently) other cast members.  Gary also gives her many long, huge closeups, her lips trembling in a Mona Lisa smile meant to evoke Mystery, Sex, and Erotic Command.  Seberg wasn’t this immobile in her other films (she was often artless and sweet), so I’m assuming her jelled appearance here is due to Gary’s direction.  By having her reveal nothing, Gary could, presumably, have Seberg unveil Everything to the viewer.  Though you might feel there’s too much, otherwise, already being unveiled.

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But though an attractive and photogenic woman, Seberg was no Garbo.  Her closeups (often shot in luminous sunlight) reveal nothing more than great bone structure and flawless skin.  In such shots she’s an utter blank; even in her few emotional scenes her face remains as smooth and uneventful as an egg’s.  With her slight overbite and dead, incurious eyes, Seberg embodies that Midwest teenager look (she was born and raised in Iowa), yielding little beyond the impression of a Very Pretty Girl—the kind who drives boys and youth-obsessed men crazy because she’s such a blank, because she can’t be read.  Except for that canary-devouring smile playing on her perfectly shaped lips.

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Seberg’s face in this film is a supremely 20th-century American type:  Blonde and symmetrical, yet shallow and affectless, like a cheerleader or cover-girl model.  There are no lines, no traces of a life lived, and you seek, how much and how long, for something there (compare Seberg’s face to Jeanne Moreau’s, and you’ll grasp what I mean).  I can see why Europeans went crazy over her; she must have been “America” to them.  It’s the chill, airbrushed perfection exemplified by American movies, advertising, and TV, and Seberg wears such pristine completeness as if by right of birth.  She was about 30 in this film yet looks the same as she did over ten years earlier, when she debuted in Saint Joan.  Her hair is even the same, still in that schoolgirl crop, as white and smooth as a skull.  Seberg the woman lived a desperately unhappy life, but it doesn’t show here.  She’s that perverse American ideal of eternal youth, at the expense of life itself.

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I sense BIP (and its director) wants to be sophisticated and daring and oh so deep, Gary peppering his film with countless shots of dead birds dotting the sand (I hope those avians were fake).  Yet the experience of watching is less a frisson than a shudder.  What kind of husband, you wonder, would expose his wife like this?  (Per the Richards biography, Seberg was left in deep shock after viewing the completed film.)  The title refers to the poet’s explanation of how sea gulls fly to the Peruvian beach to die, but both title and expired birds are just another heavy Symbol, troweled on like a Peruvian mud slide.  The film’s twist ending, in which wife and husband are joined by the poet, now taken on as chauffeur, is, I take it, to be read as kinky and drop-dead decadent, the trio presumably prepping for future S&M sex games.  Although I couldn’t help thinking that at least the poet now has a job.

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With its self-conscious solemnity, BIP can also be read as the last statement in cult cinema.  Like all cult films worth their salt, BIP is sluggish and dull, its direction clunky (Gary has no grasp of visual narrative), its dialogue laugh-inducing.  And it’s apparently been alluringly out of sight for many years.  But its cult perversity is underlaid, even undercut, by a sense of sadness and waste regarding its principals.  Watching BIP is like looking backwards at a future we now know.  Seberg and Gary divorced shortly after the film’s completion, their careers never recovering from this cinematic debacle.  A few years later Seberg, after being subjected to horrific FBI harassment that resulted in a miscarriage, would kill herself (though murder is also a possibility), and Gary would also later commit suicide.  So even if you want to laugh at the film’s unconscious camp, you just can’t.  The rising giggle will stick in your throat, and stay.

An end note:  Did I mention the wife’s name in BIP is Adriana?  Like in—‘Adriatic,’ like sun and sea and nature and oh so poetic?  It apparently also means “dark” (though Seberg is as pale as milk), as in the Dark Lady, the Mysterious Muse, the Abyss of Being.  Heavy, man.  Would things have been different had Adriana been christened Bertha or Hortense or Gertrude?  Gotta wonder.

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Birds in Peru can be watched here, in a washed-out print dubbed in Italian (though you can turn on YouTube subtitles).  For devout cult seekers, it’s probably a must.  As a Warning to the Curious, it’s an hour and a half out of your life.

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