Seberg movie review: inept tribute to a troubled movie star

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Seberg yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

French New Wave icon Jean Seberg plays an unwitting game of cat-and-mouse with the FBI in a strangled blend of biopic and paranoid thriller. Not even always fascinating Kristen Stewart can save this.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Kristen Stewart
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female coscreenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

French New Wave icon Jean Seberg died in 1979 at the age of 40, perhaps driven to take her own life — or did she? — by the conviction that the FBI had been spying on her since the 60s, targeting her because of her civil-rights activism and her affair with the black radical Hakim Jamal (here played by Anthony Mackie: Avengers: Endgame). She died before learning that this was, in fact, the case.

The cat-and-mouse game that the actress never realized she was playing is the crux around which the confused Seberg pivots. By far the most compelling aspect of this limp, strangled attempt to merge the biopic with the paranoid thriller is the central performance by the always fascinating Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper). Stewart shares certain intriguing similarities with Seberg, as American performers who found their artistic strides in French films, and deploys her trademark combination of flintiness and vulnerability to imbue her Seberg with a poignant blend of rage, terror, fragility, suspicion, and anger at her circumstances.

The FBI targeted Jean Seberg in an attempt to discredit her civil-rights activism.

But director Benedict Andrews puts a glamorous sheen on Seberg’s crumbling, and even Stewart’s smart, heartfelt work here cannot overcome the odd inappropriateness of a putting a chicly elegant spin on a troubled woman’s slow deterioration. This is a problem, too: Seberg simply isn’t central enough. Screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (as a team: The Aftermath) posit a fictional FBI agent (Jack O’Connell: Trial by Fire) heading up her surveillance and the sly attempts to destroy her public reputation. Oddly, Seberg tries to engage our empathy for Seberg’s tormentor to the point where it is sometimes strangely difficult to know just whose side the film is actually on.

viewed during the 63rd BFI London Film Festival

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