Nuanced, contemporary and carried by an enigmatic portrayal, Lilith deserves repeat viewings if only to be reminded how good Jean Seberg really was.
Directed, written and produced by Robert Rossen who famously directed The Hustler with Paul Newman, Lilith feels more contemporary than you might expect. Featuring a magnetic turn from Jean Seberg in the title role this is controversy cloaked in respectability. Headlined by an up and coming Warren Beatty, Rossen employs numerous cinematic techniques in the telling of this story. Bizarrely naturalistic, confidently framed but concisely told, Lilith courts contentious topics, touches on topical war time concerns and expertly manipulates audience expectations.
Seberg who is most famous for Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless remains effortlessly bewitching throughout, going some way to acting Beatty off screen. She is free spirited, coquettish yet devastatingly mature in conveying the emotional complexity of her character. Beatty has slightly less to do and fights Seberg scene to scene, while an understated Peter Fonda does much in support. Montages, reflections, gradual fades and a prolonged use of silence give this unconventional love story gravitas without feeling forced.
Sharing elements with One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, Rossen is unflinchingly brave in his depiction of companionship and intertwines taboos seamlessly. Sound design within Lilith is used to build atmosphere, create mood and imbue a connection, which it goes some way to achieving. Approaches which many would consider commonplace today are present and correct, meaning that in many regards Rossen was ahead of his time. Insanity is given a level of normality within the confines of this microcosm that make it instantly acceptable. Eerily atmospheric, there are touches of Picnic At Hanging Rock in the edgy mood, while Seberg’s ethereal presence and otherworldly efforts create a suffocating yet sensual foundation.
Outside of the central relationship we witness an America in flux caught between conflicts of race, identity and war time misgivings. Beatty portrays a damaged veteran looking for salvation and choosing his job as some form of penance. His home life feels like an austere Harold Pinter play where conversations are played out through long pauses and silences are all consuming. Lilith by comparison is warm, welcoming and lacking in preconceptions. How Rossen chooses to twist his narrative in the latter stages makes for an enthralling tragedy, made all the more harrowing through our connection with the title character. Nuanced, contemporary and carried by an enigmatic portrayal, Lilith deserves repeat viewings if only to be reminded how good Jean Seberg really was.