In the French Style

In the French Style tells the story of a young American woman (Jean Seberg, Breathless) who tosses aside the conventional values she grew up with, moves to Paris and attempts to live... er... in the French style. However, the title also seems to be referring to the efforts of writer Irwin Shaw and director Robert Parrish, who take a stab at imitating the storytelling and filmmaking techniques of the French New Wave. Alas, both the young woman and the filmmakers struggle to achieve their goals.

By 1963, Seberg had carved out a curious position for herself in cinema: she was France's favorite American actress. She had struggled in Hollywood (her big debut, Saint Joan, was a critical flop), but found success in France with Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and became an international star thanks to Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960). Given her unique status as an American icon of the French New Wave, Seberg's presence lends In the French Style a bit more credibility than it might have had otherwise.

Unfortunately, the film – adapted from a pair of Shaw's own short stories – doesn't quite seem to know what to do with her. Over the course of 105 minutes, In the French Style sends Seberg's character spinning into a series of romantic relationships: first with a haughty young Frenchman (Philippe Forquet, Take Her, She's Mine), then with a soft-spoken older Frenchman (a surprisingly tender turn from Stanley Baker, Zulu), then with a socially active Brit (Jack Hedley, Lawrence of Arabia) and finally with an American doctor (novelist James Leo Herlihy, who wrote Midnight Cowboy)... though it isn't quite as neat and tidy as that description suggests.

Seberg changes considerably over the course of the film, beginning as a enthusiastic, carefree ingenue and ending as a meek, defeated woman who has given up on her dreams. That's a believably downbeat journey, but the problem is that Seberg's arc is poorly-defined: she doesn't seem to evolve as the story progresses, but simply changes on a dime whenever the screenplay tells her to. It's as if Shaw and Parrish knew where they wanted to take the character but didn't put any thought into how to get her there believably. How does the woman who seemed so gleefully naïve turn into such a world-weary sophisticate in a matter of weeks? Somewhat maddeningly, the film's conclusion treats the character with surprisingly smug dismissiveness, which feels completely unearned given the film's seeming inability to successfully define her.

The film's other glaring weakness is that it spends entirely too much time holding the audience's hand as it notes the assorted cultural differences between France and America. It feels like every other scene has some character (usually characters interacting with Seberg, but sometimes Seberg herself) patiently explaining why the French do certain things a certain way, as if we're trapped in some sort of patronizing travelogue. The film prefers telling to showing, which is rarely a good thing in this particular medium.

On the plus side, the film certainly looks and sounds lovely, and not just because it stars Jean Seberg in her prime. The black-and-white cinematography – clearly a deliberate artistic choice, given that the film was made in 1963 – is gorgeous, taking plenty of time to soak in the sights of countless attractive interiors and exteriors. The editing doesn't quite have the bold snap of Breathless, but it often feels closer to that than to conventional Hollywood romances of the era. The original score by Joseph Kosma (one of Jean Renoir's regular collaborators) is alternately sweeping and playful, perfectly capturing the mood the filmmakers are going for. The film expertly captures the surface of the French New Wave, but it never captures the substance.


In the French Style

Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Year: 1963