When the trailers for Seberg began to circulate I had no clue what to make of it, the whole premise looked muddled from the get-go and while I was pleasantly surprised by how ambitious it tries to be it never really makes itself known, or vital, in the way it should, thanks to its own, polite, buttoned-up structure. For a film so consumed with combating the status quo, speaking truth to power and causing a little chaos, Seberg is tight and controlled, never free and fearless.
Telling the story of Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart), A star of French New Wave cinema who for the sake of her career decides to return to America and make a name for herself. When she returns she finds herself an active member of a civil rights movement thanks to her association with self-described ‘revolutionary’ Hakim Jamal (a woefully underused Anthony Mackie). While she funds their movement, her involvement piques the interest of the FBI and agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) is sent to surveil her and find a way to dissuade her continued support, even if it means ruining her image.
While it isn’t hard to believe that anything that happens in Seberg is true, it has a lens uninterested in corrupting itself with the dirty minutiae that makes a story like Jean’s compelling. Director Benedict Andrews isn’t interested in talking about the corruption of his characters in a film entirely about the different forms of corruption within a people and a country. For a film set in the late 60s when things were moving into colour, this is so remarkably black and white. There are white knights and monsters, the downtrodden and the ones with their feet covered in blood. Nobody has any concept of the fact that actions have consequences until the plot demands that they do.
One particular scene where Jack is invited to his parter’s (a cartoonish, yet by no fault of his own, Vince Vaughn) home for a friendly dinner not only breaks what little momentum Andrews had constructed in a film constantly jumping from two different plots, but it highlights the lack of complexity in the world outside of Seberg’s orbit. Things happen that effect Jean or Jack but the characters whose lives they impact/destruct seem oddly insignificant. Vaughn in one scene manages to make his character the personification of racism, misogyny and backwards thinking. It feels superfluous to the plot, it makes the FBI out to be an organisation filled with monomaniacal Bond villains and it makes Seberg’s world seem small, self-absorbed and utterly fake. It may be set in Hollywood but some level of honesty seems fitting for a film hellbent on battling the disinformation around Jean’s life.
The real issue here, however, is that terrific performances are buried under the weight of a story that doesn’t know what it is. Stewart wants her Seberg to be a tragic figure who doesn’t understand half of the good she is trying to achieve, she is just trying to do something positive. She is naive yet soulful and Stewart relishes in it. O’Connell, while lumbered with exposition, infuses Jack with a constantly searching yet loyal mentality that isn’t present in the dialogue afforded him. His scenes with his wife Linette (Margaret Qualley) might just be some of his best as it allows him to play with the concept of shame and regret, some of the films most unsung yet potent themes.
In fact, that might be Seberg’s downfall as the strongest moments seem almost accidental, hidden among heavy-handed yet utterly scripted moments of callousness. Jean isn’t interesting because of who she knows as the FBI and Andrews seem to think. Stewart correctly knows that her ideals and warped sense of importance make her far more relevant and imperfect a character than who she is sleeping/working with.
While it would be simple to say that Seberg isn’t the film it wants to be, it is impossible to watch it and not see the desire behind it, the history and relevance it carries yet doesn’t ultimately live up to. The story of Jean Seberg is a tragic one that people should know about, especially today when disinformation is becoming the norm yet again, but I don’t think Seberg the film does justice to her undoing or the story of a country willing to let it happen.