For a brief period, Jean Seberg was the coolest woman on the planet. After making her debut in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan, following a lengthy and highly-publicized talent search, Seberg was immortalized in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, the movie that embodied the French New Wave. With her pixie cut blonde hair and impeccable style, she’s been copied by everyone (including Madonna) and remains one of the most enigmatic figures of this period. Her story was spun as Hollywood’s ultimate fairy-tale, plucked from obscurity by a legend as a teenager and taken to the heights of celebrity, but her involvement in Black Panther politics and funding supposedly radical causes led her to be investigated by the FBI. They all but ruined her through extensive surveillance, press leaks, and endless defamation, all of which ended in blacklisting, serious mental health problems, and death by suicide at the age of 40.
Frankly, it’s kind of astounding that Seberg’s life hasn’t been given the biopic treatment (although Jodie Foster did try for many years to make it happen). So now we have Seberg, directed by Benedict Andrews and starring Kristen Stewart. Sadly, it seriously fails its subject and the tangled web she lived in.
Seberg smartly decides to focus on the actress’s increasing involvement in civil rights activism and her financial support of the Black Panther Party, sparked through her professional and personal involvement with Hakim Jamal (played by Anthony Mackie). After returning to Hollywood following her French success, Jean has the potential to be the industry’s biggest star, but the work doesn’t satisfy her and she feels putting her money where her mouth is will be of greater benefit. This leads her to become the latest target of the FBI’s watch on civil rights figures, an investigation headed by Jack O’Connell’s character, a career man who slowly begins to see the error of his ways.
As always, Kristen Stewart is luminous and perfectly fragile as Seberg, a woman who is desperately striving for independence before the weight of the FBI’s meddling begins to crush her irrevocably. She radiates the cool persona — both that appealing chilliness and that allure of effortless style — as easily as she breathes. Stewart has always been an actress who screams modernity, but that ends up being perfect for Seberg, a woman who simultaneously felt very much of her time and ahead of it in Hollywood. She’s supported by an excellent cast but few of them are given anything of substance to do. She and Anthony Mackie have good chemistry but the more complex threads of their relationship are barely touched upon so Mackie ends up being more like window dressing than anything else. Zazie Beetz and Margaret Qualley, two of the most magnetic actresses working today, are given such minor roles that I felt offended on their behalf.
Jack O’Connell is equally squandered, and it’s his character that ends up truly sinking Seberg. He plays a fictional FBI agent assigned to the case alongside a pointlessly cartoonish Vince Vaughn. As an active participant in the American government’s wire-tapping, surveillance, and gaslighting of civil rights activists and Black Panthers, he’s a-okay with a bit of secret photography and listening in on people having sex. That’s all for the cause, right? But when poor white girl Jean is caught in the crosshairs and it goes ‘too far’, then he gets all sad and wants to take an ethical stand. It’s insulting, to say the least, and the movie trying to force audiences to sympathize with him and his Sad Wife (guess how she feels about her husband not being home enough?) is borderline gross. Did the narrative not trust audiences enough to see Seberg’s growing paranoia through her own eyes?
That lack of narrative focus is a major thorn in the film’s side. It wants to be a thriller with its take on the FBI’s surveillance but isn’t especially thrilling, and as a study of Seberg herself, it doesn’t want to dig beyond the surface, in large part because it’s too busy jumping back to the FBI guys and their nonsense. Seberg’s involvement with the Black Panthers opens up a lot of discussions about the intersections of politics and celebrity as well as the problems of a wealthy white woman positioning herself at the forefront of civil rights. The film touches on none of that, partly because it would probably make Seberg seem less saintly than the narrative is willing to accommodate, but also because it would force the screenplay to do more than look at Mackie’s character as a mouthpiece. In one scene, Beetz’s character asks if Seberg is more than just a tourist to the cause but that question is quickly abandoned for no real reason other than the timidity of the screenplay.
When making a movie about a famously stylish individual, it can be easy to lean heavily on aesthetics to get the job done. Seberg doesn’t so much do this through flashy cinematography or the like but through constantly reminding us how good she looked in and out of clothes. There are a questionable number of scenes where Jean lounges around in see-through tops and short skirts looking pensive as if that will justify the obvious linger of the camera’s focus. This is what the audience is given in place of insight, although some clunky dialogue will also have to suffice.
Seberg feels like a depressingly missed opportunity to not only give one of the great movie icons of the ’60s her dues but to recontextualize a nasty period of American history through the lens of celebrity. Sadly it chickens out on the tough work required and Kristen Stewart is left to do the heavy lifting, but she is only one woman and not even her boundless appeal can buoy something that seems so determined to sink.
The distribution rights to Seberg were acquired by Amazon, and as of the writing of this review, it does not have a release date.
Header Image Source: TIFF