Seberg (2019)

Actress. Activist. Adversary.

Goddamn but Kristen Stewart as doomed French New Wave icon Jean Seberg is a perfect piece of casting. With her pixie cut bob and defiantly cocked jaw, projecting a volatile combination of vulnerability and strength, moral determination and self-destructive hedonism, she’s a millimeter-fine fit for, if not the actual persona of the À bout de souffle (1960) star, then at least the idea of her, while at the same time managing to communicate something human and true through our preconceived notions of what the woman was like. It’s an act of complete commitment to the role; Stewart really is one of the best we’ve got right now, and really the legacy of her initial burst of fame thanks to the Twilight Saga is a) she’s financially secure to do interesting projects and b) anyone arcing up about her being ‘that Twilight chick’ has earmarked themselves as being safe to ignore. Really, we owe those sparkly vampires a lot.

But the subject at hand is not Twilight, but Seberg, Australian director Benedict Andrews,’ Una (2016), account of the last few years of the actor’s life, and in particular her surveillance and harassment by the F.B.I. under their anti-subversive COINTELPRO program after she became a vocal proponent and financial supporter of Civil Rights issues in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Mirrors lie. They don’t show you what’s inside.

COINTELPRO was a hell of a thing, and a good reason to curse J. Edgar Hoover whenever his name comes up. A covert program designed to discredit, embarrass, or otherwise ‘neutralize’ any high profile figure that Hoover, who effectively ran the Feds as his private fiefdom, deemed a threat to the greater good, COINTELPRO’s targets included Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, Abbie Hoffman, Ernest Hemingway, Huey P. Newton, Malcolm X, and more, and if you’re noticing a preponderance of black figures in the crosshairs, well, that speaks to the hot button issue of the time.

In the film, the ‘crime’ that brings Seberg to the F.B.I.’s attention is posing, right fist raised, for a photograph with black activist and Malcolm X disciple Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), prompting F.B.I. honcho Frank Ellroy (Colm Meaney, and that must be a nod to James Ellroy, poet laureate of corrupt masculine authority, right?) to sic the boys on her, in particular clean-cut new guy Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell). Jack is a fictional character insofar as I can tell, and as he bugs Seberg’s homes and peers at her through binoculars, it’s through his eyes that much of the story unfolds.

This lends Seberg an interesting but not always successfully maintained tension as the film vacillates between portraying its eponymous central figure as a human being and as an icon, with Solomon’s increasingly voyeuristic and obsessive observations of her paralleling the pop culture audience’s thirst for stars of any stripe: the imagined intimacy tempered by unbroachable distance, the way every detail of someone’s world can be collated, cataloged, filed, and indexed, but the actual person remains essentially unknowable.

You never know who’s listening.

It’s a narratively ambitious aim that the script, by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, The Aftermath (2019), never quite manages to nail, but it certainly comes close, and Stewart’s performance makes up for its shortcomings. In her hands, Seberg is still an enigma, but a compelling and empathetic one. We have to grapple with her motivations: is she, freshly returned to the U.S. from life among the French lefty intelligentsia, acting from well-reasoned political ideals or more impulsive drives? She donates to the Black Panthers, but also embarks on an affair with Jamal, alienating his wife, Dorothy Jamal (an underused Zazie Beetz). We get the sense that she is a woman adrift, flinging herself at perceived places of shelter and belonging only to find herself again disillusioned, pinballing from France to the United States, her marriage to French aviator and author Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) to Jamal’s bed, Hollywood fame to activist notoriety, and while the film directly implicates the F.B.I.’s campaign of harassment as a contributing cause to Seberg’s increasingly erratic mental state, it also apportions no small amount of blame to her existing circumstances and psychology. Her drinking is already an issue when we meet her, her marriage already rocky, which makes her a particularly vulnerable target for COINTELPRO; the levers that Ellroy, Solomon, and his partner, Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn further staking his claim as Boorish Middle American #1) need to push are clearly marked.

And yet there’s also a sense of destiny in play. The film opens with a sequence depicting an on-set accident during the filming of Seberg’s first movie, Saint Joan (1957), where a careless Otto Preminger, in his drive to capture Seberg’s warrior saint being burned at the stake, let the actress herself be injured. Martyrdom is on the cards from the get-go. Later, when Seberg and Jamal read from the script for one of her upcoming films (it’s notorious 1969 Western musical flop Paint Your Wagon, trainspotters), she speaks of wanting safety and sanctuary and being willing to trade love for such things. These elements speak to director Benedict Andrews’ theatre background — heightened bits of narrative business that sacrifice verisimilitude for thematic punch.

‘A woman has her secrets.’

Ultimately, though, Seberg stretches itself too thin, and it’s tempting to speculate whether choosing any one direction to cleave to would have resulted in a stronger, more focused film; certainly, the insertion of O’Connell’s fictional character into the action opens the movie up to accusations that Jean Seberg has been pushed out of the center of her own story and, despite the interesting themes this choice presents, it’s a hard charge to counter. It can be a bit tricky to speculate on what other choices could have been made — the film at hand is the film, after all — but imagine this story with the Feds excised but the mounting circumstantial evidence of their interference left in play, with the audience sharing Seberg’s uncertainty as to what is real harassment and what is the work of her own inner demons.

Instead, what we have is a pretty good film wrapped around a pretty great performance, which makes Seberg worth your time and money, even if it’s not quite the knockout it could have been.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Seberg is released through Icon Film Distribution Australia