When In the French Style (1963) opened in New York 54 years ago today, the reception for this maverick, modern-style, continentally adult look at romance crafted by screenwriter/producer Irwin Shaw (from two of his short stories) and director/producer Robert Parrish was muted for the material but encouraging for its newly rising lead player. Jean Seberg, not quite 24 and the new mother of a child fathered by soon-to-be-husband, French novelist Romain Gary, at the time of its production, was already celebrated as the evolving star of Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and Jean Luc-Godard’s award-winning Breathless (1960), highly valued the project. Per biographer David Richards’ 1981 Played Out: The Jean Seberg Story: “‘It sounds like five films I’ve already made,’ Jean told a French television interviewer. ‘But it’s the best scenario and the most developed character I’ve had so far, excepting Joan of Arc.’ As Christina James, a plucky American art student in Paris, Jean was given more opportunities to reveal her acting range than any of her [five] French films had allowed. Spread over four years, the script shows her first as a ponytailed innocent, dabbling away at bad canvases, braving Parisian snobbery and indulging in puppy love with a French teenager (Philippe Forquet) who is even less experienced than she. The years flash forward, and Christina emerges as a sophisticated plaything of the jet set, caught up in a round of parties and a rocky affair with a globetrotting journalist (Stanley Baker). Finally, tired of the sham and feeling shopworn, she returns to San Francisco to marry a doctor.”
Parrish considered her “a joy to photograph” and recalled that “she really pitched in and worked harder than anyone else.” Indeed, the role of Christina may have borne a more emotional undercurrent for the Iowa-born Seberg, as Richards assesses in this memory he includes from co-star Addison Powell, who played the drifting artist’s concerned, disapproving father urging her to come home. “‘It was a fairly deep and heavy scene. The father sees that his daughter is like a chip on the waves and wants to probe the extent of her injuries. She argues that she’s no longer a child and knows which end of a man is up. We filmed it at night on a steep incline in Montmarte. Jean and I talked a lot about it beforehand. She admitted she’d had similar discussions with her own father. I mentioned that to Ed Seberg, when I was teaching one semester at the University of Iowa. Ed nodded sadly and said the scene had been very real to him, too. But he liked the way Jean called me ‘Papa’ in the film. ‘Papa – that’s what she always calls me, too,’ he said.’” As a fascinating window into the maturation of an acting talent with an erratic career arc, In the French Style seems wiser now in hindsight than at its first blush. Flavorfully shot by revered French cinematographer Michel Kobert and scored by Joseph Kosma, In the French Style, accompanied by a probative Audio Commentary by resident TT historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, plays out movingly on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.