Seberg is further proof that Kristen Stewart is one of the most interesting actors of her generation. She has proven herself many times in recent years, taking risks and nailing perfect landings with her work. Unlike Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper, The Runaways, or Still Alice, Seberg is not her equal. While she’s been great in many great films, Seberg might be the first case where her captivating lead performance makes a bad film worth watching. Stewart is utterly magnetic while bringing to life the late actress of Breathless fame. Frankly, it proves Stewart a better actress than Jean Seberg was.
Such a claim might seem unfair while reviewing a film about Seberg. However, the film barely discusses Seberg’s work as an actress. A recreation of Stewart rubbing her thumb atop her lips is the only tangible reference to Seberg’s work in Breathless. There’s a reference to a scar, reportedly from a terrible burn she suffered during Otto Preminger’s overzealous direction of Saint Joan, and some lines about filming Airport and Paint Your Wagon. Otherwise, Seberg is just a run-of-the-mill conspiracy theory film with some on-the-nose Trump allegories.
Jean Seberg meets #FakeNews
Screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Shrapnel (The Aftermath) miss an opportunity to do justice to a life lost too soon. The film Seberg focuses on a period in the late 1960s when the actress went under surveillance due to her support for the civil rights movement. The film features a cat-and-mouse game of sorts as Seberg uses her celebrity to draw attention to the cause. The other side of the story is FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), who leads the surveillance on Seberg. The actress crumbles with paranoia, and rightfully so, as she sees the damage Uncle Sam does to her career. Solomon similarly faces his own disillusionment when actions against Seberg escalate while his findings prove she’s harmless. The film makes a relevant point that good people with noble intentions fight against a rigged system in the USA both then and now. It’s impossible to miss the Trumpian overtones of disinformation, fake news, and hostility towards Hollywood.
The film acknowledges other celebrities who put their careers on the line during the civil rights movement, notably Nina Simone with some choice music cues that evoke the spirit of an artist who also raised her fist in solidarity with the Black Panthers. There’s an obvious awkwardness, though, in dramatizing the civil rights movement through Jean Seberg rather than Nina Simone. Perhaps this slice of Seberg’s story might work better in the context of a fuller, larger film, but I’d much rather see the Nina Simone version.
A missed opportunity
This chapter of Seberg’s life is obviously significant in its greater resonance with the fight for civil liberties. As a film, however, Seberg struggles to invest audiences in the stakes at hand. It takes one’s familiarity with Seberg for granted. Let’s face it; many of Stewart’s younger fans might only recognize Breathless thanks to some references in The Squid and the Whale. Moreover, Solomon isn’t a particularly compelling character and O’Connell’s comparatively wooden performance is a dramatic vacuum for the tribute to Seberg that Stewart creates. (He’s also another unfortunate filter of seeing the civil rights movement through the eyes of white people.) Pretty much everyone depicted here deserves better. However, perhaps it’s fitting that a film about an actress leaves one gushing only about its star.