By Peg Aloi
The enigma of Seberg’s demise hangs over this biopic, which focuses on the civil rights activism that made the actress a target for the FBI’s covert surveillance.
Seberg, directed by Benedict Andrews. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
Kristen Stewart has shown herself to be a versatile, thoughtful actress, as comfortable in a glossy adventure flick (like Charlie’s Angels) as she is in a tiny indie chamber piece (like Certain Women). And yet every prominent role she’s been cast in seems to focus on her classic gamine beauty — rather than on her intelligence or talent as a thespian. As a result, her starring performances often strike me as as being one-dimensional and flat: Stewart is always, reliably, Stewart. The same equation holds true here, where she plays tragic starlet Jean Seberg, an American actress who garnered international fame during the French New Wave era playing the femme fatale in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). Seberg died under mysterious circumstances at age 40 — the death was ruled a “probable suicide.” The enigma of her demise hangs over this biopic, which focuses on the civil rights activism that made the actress a target for the FBI’s covert surveillance.
The film begins with clips of Seberg’s film debut, in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957) when she was 17. A horrific accident during filming left her with burn scars (this early brush with martyrdom is apt — even as the allusion is a bit heavy-handed), but that didn’t stop Seberg from going on to star in Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse. Two years later she was cast in Breathless, which cemented her reputation as an American starlet hungry to work in Europe. In 1968, Seberg found herself on a plane with Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a leader in the Black Panther Party who acted as a liaison to Hollywood stars like Marlon Brando. At that point, Seberg had been a civil rights supporter for years, mainly as a donor to and member of the NAACP. Seeing Jamal being treated poorly on the flight by the staff, to which he responded loudly and flamboyantly, she offered him her first class seat. After the plane disembarked, she saw Jamal standing with his fellow resisters and, knowing there were press photographers waiting for her to appear, she stood for a famous photograph on the tarmac with the Panthers, her fist raised in solidarity.
Seberg and Jamal began a close relationship, defined first by sex (though Seberg’s biographer denies this) and then by mutual reciprocity. Seberg gave money to support breakfast programs for kids; perhaps she felt that the charity helped justify her glamorous Hollywood life that kept her away from the struggle on the streets. Meanwhile, the FBI began to bug Seberg’s phone, and take photographs of her movements. Jack, the agent assigned to follow her, becomes sympathetic, but others at the agency are eager to exploit the surveillance to obtain intimate footage. Hoover, they claim, “likes to hear the bedsprings creak.” Jack (played with complexity by English actor Jack O’Connell) is married; the pressure of his job sparks friction with his wife (Margaret Qualley). Why the FBI targets Seberg is unclear; perhaps Hoover and company thought her fame gave them some leverage over the Black Panthers. They plant rumors in the press in an effort to break her. And they do.
Overall, the film’s portrayal of the era of social upheaval and militant counterculture is authentic if fairly bland. There are some appealing soundtrack choices, including French lounge music that generates a false sense of carefree insouciance. The lush cinematography by Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) captures a subtle glamour, enhanced by period color palettes and excellent costume designs by Michael Wilkinson (American Hustle). Director Benedict Andrews may seem to be an unfamiliar name in cinema, but he has filmed high profile performances at London’s National Theatre, including Gillian Anderson starring in All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire. There are good performances throughout Seberg; I especially liked Anthony Mackie, who plays Jamal as part showman and part warrior. This Black Panther knows that the best way to support the cause is to game the system. Zazie Beetz (Atlanta) plays Jamal’s wife Alice, a woman whose loyalty is tested by humiliation, scrutiny, and danger. Vince Vaughan is the head of the cabal of FBI agents, and he is appropriately crass and ghoulish. Wind River’s James Jordan embodies the creepy, sexist attitude of Hoover’s henchmen. Stewart is very fine as Seberg: not because she gives us a believable facsimile of the actress (there’s no real effort at mimicry here), but because she’s convincing as a woman slowly unraveling, paranoid enough to know that all of her fame and wealth won’t be enough to keep her safe from the government’s determination to wreck her life.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.