Americans in Paris
When long-time friends, writer/producer Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions) and director/producer Robert Parrish (The Wonderful Country), set to work on an adaptation of two of Shaw’s Paris-set short stories, everything seemed to fall into place for their on-location shoot. They got Columbia Pictures to bankroll the film for $557,000, guarantee them full artistic control and empower them to cast their desired leading lady, the beautiful recent discovery Jean Seberg, who’d already appeared in Saint Joan, Bonjour Tristesse and Let No Man Write My Epitaph for the studio and was in the process of transforming herself from an unsure neophyte into an accomplished actress as well as a woman of the world who broke out from her Iowa family roots to become a muse for French filmmakers, particularly Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, collaborators on Seberg’s worldwide New Wave sensation Breathless (1960). The result was In the French Style (1963), a character study of a restless young painter whose series of romantic relationships in the City of Light lead to disillusionment and a reluctant embrace of maturity, almost an antidote to the outlaw spirit of Breathless, yet anchored by the truth in Seberg’s performance. The men with whom Seberg’s character Christina bonds, Philippe Forquet as a young Frenchman who pretends to a worldliness beyond himself, Stanley Baker as an older journalist and James Leo Herlihy (the future Midnight Cowboy author) as a doctor who offers a potentially stable life, all have a cumulative effect on her personal growth, perhaps much more than the bohemian allure she offers to them. As Michael Coates-Smith and Garry McGee note in The Films of Jean Seberg, “In reality, Christina James’ story is anything but Seberg’s own, but rather as it might have been. Here the heroine takes her voyage of self-discovery just so far, and then decides that she is an old-fashioned girl after all, and one who ultimately prefers a predictable and secure future to one of risk and excitement and potential unhappiness.” It is an American-in-Paris tale with a joie-de-vivre premise that turns more bittersweet in its resolution, perfectly in keeping with the vision of Shaw and Parrish. Also caught up in the romance of the project was Assistant to the Producer Catherine Wyler, the daughter of legendary filmmaker William Wyler, in what would be her first industry job. The future producer of 1990’s Memphis Belle (a fictionalized reinvention of her father’s World War II documentary about a bomber crew) recounted by phone earlier this month that the gig of being a “go-fer” for Shaw and Parrish was an “eye-opener” for a young 23-year-old. It was a sort of family affair: Parrish served as Wyler’s godfather when she converted to Catholicism in order to be schooled in Switzerland, and Seberg’s first husband François Moreuil was Wyler’s cousin. The shooting of In the French Style went smoothly, although Wyler did recall that the Cuban Missile Crisis between the U.S. and the Soviet Union erupted during filming, with tensions rolling like a huge wave across the globe during the period between October 16 and 28 in 1962. “We were all holding our breath,” she remembered, and one day on the set, when the headlines and media reports of an imminent confrontation were particularly ominous, the burly Shaw stood up and railed at the universe at large, shouting “Why won’t they leave us alone?” As it turned out, Shaw and Parrish were left alone to create this intriguing, rarely-seen and thoughtful “independent film” worth another look as a time capsule of its day and a testament to the unique talent of its leading lady. In the French Style arrives April 12 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open March 30.