Kristen Stewart shines in Benedict Andrew’s unstable biographical thriller.
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I think the real Jean Seberg would’ve deserved better than this. She was a gifted young actor whose later years were marred by controversy and scandal, as the FBI suspected her of funding the radical Black Panther Party. She grew highly paranoid and was found dead in her car in 1979, aged 40, presumed to have taken her own life. Seberg, the new movie based on those tumultuous years, is assured and sympathetic, but it plays too much like a conventional thriller.
According to the plot, Seberg (Kristen Stewart) first met Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) on a flight from France to the United States. Jamal, a cousin to Malcolm X, was a prominent activist in the Black Power movement and way up there on the FBI’s list of suspicious persons. Both Seberg and Jamal were married, but they bonded easily over their shared passion for justice so later thought it’d be a good idea to bond in several other ways.
Her involvement with Jamal flung her squarely into the crosshairs of the FBI, which, under the authoritarian fist of J. Edgar Hoover, was permitted to turn a person’s life upside-down, inside-out, usually with the most illegal practices available.
In Seberg, the FBI is represented by two men, neither of whom I am sure really existed. One is Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn), who is married to the job. The other is Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), an eager young agent whose sole purpose in the story is to begrudgingly follow Seberg, bug her house, snap unsolicited photographs and then curl up in guilt as he realises his actions have driven the poor girl insane.
Alas, none of the FBI stuff is particularly engrossing, nor does any of it ring true. If Jack is truly a fictional creation by the writers, his presence only muddles the moral complexity of Seberg’s characters and unacceptably exonerates the FBI. I don’t doubt that many agents under Hoover questioned his shady methods, but I do wonder if any of them would have done what Jack does in this movie, especially towards the end in a scene in Paris that is quite implausible.
No matter. The movie is called Seberg, and Kristen Stewart proves once again that Bella Swan was an anomaly. She is a gifted actress, turning in a performance that deserves a more finely tuned movie. Her rendition of Seberg is warm and intelligent, and she always seems to be aware of the power her beauty and sexuality exert on the men around her.
So why do I not feel like I know what the real Jean Seberg was like? Perhaps it’s because director Benedict Andrews relies too heavily on thriller clichés and not enough on human exploration. Seberg’s Wikipedia page describes it as a political thriller, which it is, and it’s a good one. What I want to know is, when does it stop being about the FBI and start being about Jean?
Seberg is available in Australian cinemas from 30 January 2020
Image courtesy of Icon Film Distribution