THREE AND A HALF STARS Actress Jean Seberg was driven to suicide by the FBI for supporting the Black Panthers.
Kristen Stewart, Jack O'Connell
PERIOD DRAMA #SEBERG
It’s not common to burn the subject of your biopic in the opening shot, however it can make a tidy scene-setter for what’s to come. It is especially poignant here given the burning took place at the start of Jean Seberg’s career. Her breakthrough was in Otto Preminger’s SAINT JOAN, the revisited scene has her tied to a stake for heresy then set on fire, literally as it turned out.
Forward a dozen years and Seberg (Kristen Stewart), now an established star in France, is working on a Hollywood comeback. She leaves her husband and son in Paris and heads to Los Angeles, exchanging the social upheaval of her adopted home for the civil rights movement in the US. Her interest in the Black Panthers is noted by the FBI and before you can say Damn Pinkos, the government has assigned a team (Jack O’Connell and Vince Vaughn) to shut her down. Hoover wasn’t about to let an inspiring, liberated, progressive woman share her socially damaging (ie inspiring, liberated, progressive) views with the public. Plus ça change.
There’s a lot of material to work with, not least of which is teasing out what made Seberg the fascinating character she clearly was. Ahead of her time, shockingly so for many in the establishment, the actress found herself in the crosshairs of a conspiracy to silence her. Grit for a terrific character exploration, or so you’d think. Yet too often writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse back off from detail and give us the mechanics, rather than the meaning. Acclaimed Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews (well known for his NT: Live production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, also starring Jack O’Connell) seems satisfied with emotional responses and is not so interested in pressing for purpose either.
SEBERG could be perfectly serviceable fiction framed by the crisis of faith of an agent (will torturing this woman save society?) as his victim teeters on the brink of nervous collapse. Only it’s not fiction - this was Seberg’s life, and as is so often the case, the facts were so much more interesting. Yet for all its missed opportunity, SEBERG remains engaging and is well worth your time thanks to Stewart’s standout performance. The journey from spirited wokeness into self-doubt and despair is one of the finest of her career and cements her reputation as one of the most interesting actors in work today (notwithstanding recent detours like UNDERWATER and CHARLIE’S ANGELS). There’s a European sensibility that Seberg herself would be proud of.
“Who is Jean Seeberg?” asks a journalist doing a puff piece on her Hollywood feature. A good question for after a couple of agreeable hours of SEBERG we, the audience, are little wiser. It’s clear that Stewart has a pretty good idea. Yet despite her best efforts, she’s not given the vehicle to relay more to us than we can read in Wikipedia.