The true story of Jean Seberg is a fascinating one. She was plucked from obscurity in the late 1950s to play Joan of Arc for Otto Preminger, sustaining real burns during the execution scene and being savaged by critics at the time for her performance. She later broke out as an icon of the French New Wave in Breathless, becoming a major Hollywood star as well as a prominent contributor to civil rights organisations. It’s this that forms the crux of biopic Seberg, which charts the FBI’s illegal surveillance and harassment of Seberg due to her political affiliation.
Kristen Stewart plays the title role in what is becoming her trademark style of compelling, idiosyncratic performance. She’s unpredictable from scene to scene in a way that is eminently watchable, albeit often incompatible with the rather more conventional biopic format being essayed by director Benedict Andrews, as well as writing duo Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. It’s only Stewart’s commitment to pushing beyond straightforward impersonation that keeps the movie above water.
Elsewhere, it’s pretty pedestrian stuff. The film starts with Jean on a plane, where she has a sort of meet-cute with Black Power activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) and allows herself to be photographed with him at the airport. They’ve soon embarked on an affair alongside Jean’s fundraising efforts, which attracts the attention of greenhorn FBI agent Jack (Jack O’Connell) and his cynical partner Carl (Vince Vaughn). Soon, she’s a fully-minted target of the COINTELPRO surveillance operation, which seeks to destabilise and disgrace her personally and professionally.
There’s a lot of material to get through in Seberg and the struggle faced to cram it all into a brisk, pacy movie is often palpable. At times, the film feels freewheeling and loose, while there are also segments of congestion in which events are compressed and whipped past so quickly that it’s tough to feel the full weight of their importance. Stewart’s initial effervescence is quickly replaced by her simply looking wide-eyed in panic while yelling down corridors and into phones. The connective tissue is missing.
It doesn’t help that the script decides to divide its attention between Seberg and O’Connell’s character – an FBI agent keen to be part of the boys’ club, despite his distaste for some of the COINTELPRO tactics. Seberg often seems more committed to providing a redemptive arc for this character – the uber-talented O’Connell effectively reduced to an accent and nothing more – than actually exploring the ways in which Seberg was exploited and dehumanised by the actions of her own government. Tellingly, there’s more examination of O’Connell’s relationship with his wife (Margaret Qualley) – and his obsession with the Cap-punching-Hitler Marvel comic – than the bond between Jean and her husband (Yvan Attal).
The film also misses a huge open goal opportunity in terms of drawing parallels between what Seberg faced 50 years ago and the political atmosphere in America today. The celebrities of today also often find themselves at odds with the goals of the political establishment and, although the FBI’s COINTELPRO programme was ultimately condemned by the Senate on its exposure, it has a less insidious but noisier analogue in the abused faced by the politically outspoken famous faces of social media in the 21st century.
Seberg feels like an enormous missed opportunity across the board. On paper, it’s a terrific stranger-than-fiction true story with resonances in modern society, with one of the most dynamic and unusual leading ladies in Hollywood on the marquee. Sadly, in the hands of Andrews and his team, the result is a bit of a damp squib that, despite its fairly brief running time, feels like it goes on for hours without really saying anything at all.
Dir: Benedict Andrews
Scr: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Anthony Mackie, Zazie Beetz, Margaret Qualley, Vince Vaughn, Colm Meaney, Yvan Attal, Stephen Root
Prd: Marina Acton, Fred Berger, Kate Garwood, Stephen Hopkins, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Bradley Pilz, Alan Ritchson
DOP: Rachel Morrison
Music: Jed Kurzel
Run time: 102 mins
Seberg is in UK cinemas now.