starring Kristen Stewart, Jack O'Connell, Margaret Qualley, Anthony Mackie
written by Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse
directed by Benedict Andrews
by Walter Chaw Benedict Andrews aspires to Alan J. Pakula with his paranoid biopic of martyred Nouvelle Vague sensation Jean Seberg but approaches it like Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can instead. His Seberg is a handsome, even slick production with a great cast and a bright period production design where something rougher-hewn, something grainier and consistently darker, might have given it a more appropriately claustrophobic feel. Shot as a prestige movie trying very hard to be About Something, Seberg has the effect of making Iowa-born Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) seem shallow and silly, every bit the accidental activist and media-diagnosed hysteric she was portrayed as during her lifetime. Andrews often obscures her with foreground objects to suggest a voyeuristic perspective, allows a lot of repetitive dialogue from Jean about how she knows she's being bugged, and goes so far as to invent a sympathetic FBI agent named Jack Solomon (Jack O'Connell) to confess to his wife (Margaret Qualley) that his agency is engaged in ratfucking Seberg for her support of the Black Panthers. But when your film looks this clean and expensive, the feeling is one of a privileged perspective acting like a tourist for some borrowed righteousness.
There is, of course, a great irony in Seberg playing at large issues, just as, some would argue, there's irony embedded in an Iceland-based Australian theatre director making a film about the FBI's corrupt complicity in the undermining of a progressive movement in the United States. That irony being that a prestige-hungry project delivered through a white-outsider perspective is precisely the kind of myopic, if well-intentioned, narrative the FBI tried to craft for Seberg in the 1960s. The critique is unjust in the case of Seberg; a withering indictment in the case of Seberg. The picture opens circa 1968 with Seberg returning to the United States after finding stardom in France. Truffaut referred to her then as the best actress in Europe, but she remained defiantly American and came home following the collapse of her second marriage. Here in the film, at least, she immediately enters into an affair with Malcolm X's cousin Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), donates a lot of money to the Black Panthers (among other organizations, though Seberg narrows its focus to the Panthers), and then starts hearing strange clicks when she picks up her telephone. Meanwhile, Agent Jack, the guy assigned to surveil Seberg and then to destroy her with racially-charged stories planted here and there in major news outlets, provides the FBI with a benevolent conscience for some reason unbeknownst to me.
Seberg uses clumsy monologues to lecture on the importance of doing the right thing and portrays Seberg weaponizing her sexuality to gain entry into the good graces of Jamal and, by extension, the Black Panthers. A quick flash to when Seberg, in her film debut, was severely injured in an on-set fire during the shooting of Otto Preminger's Saint Joan becomes a metaphor for not only how emotionally-broken Jean already is before all the shit that goes down in the film, but also for how Jean herself is like Joan of Arc: the martyred warrior. Unfortunately, Seberg does a terrible job of portraying why she was seen as such a threat to white culture beyond the presumed outrage of her sleeping with black men--a fact known only to the guys listening in (the FBI). Vague "this comes from on high" deflections indict J. Edgar Hoover, sure, but Seberg has already made it clear that even the agents at the airport when she deplanes from Paris are only there to watch Jamal, and that Seberg is really not that big of a deal. I get that it's probably just a character-development device to have Jack ask his buddy who she is, yet it destabilizes the motive to sully her image later on.
I would have liked it if the film had been about how this woman who was known less as an American actress than as an icon of a French movement nonetheless became a threat to white identity during the worst days of the Civil Rights era. On the other hand, I would have liked it if the film had been about a cinema legend who risked her fame for a cause in which she believed. I would have liked best of all if the film had just sat with Jean's trauma throughout her life at the hands of a parade of abusive, monstrous men who gave her the illusion of security and importance in exchange for her mental, emotional, and financial well-being. The story at the centre of Seberg isn't what the Panthers are up to, or the Feds, or Otto Preminger or Jean-Luc Godard. The story you see at the periphery of this picture, skipping off its surface like a flat stone, concerns Jean, a young woman from Iowa who wanted very much to matter and over the course of her journey found only predators attracted to her naivety. Stewart is wonderful, as she tends to be, and she seems to get it. Consider a scene late in the film where Jean (then a bad drunk, though the film doesn't deal with her alcoholism) has all of her suspicions confirmed at last and, rather than explode, demonstrates instead a sort of kindness in asking her tormentor his name. In the middle of this defining moment in her life, this confirmation of the sanity (which all of the people who should have loved her unconditionally have questioned), she's focused on building a human connection to the messenger. Stewart's too good for this. She's an inspired choice to play Jean Seberg. Both star and subject deserved better.