‘America is at war with black people,’ says activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) in Benedict Andrews’s Seberg, but he’s in the wrong movie here; on the evidence presented here, American was, and probably still is, at war with women. Jean Seberg’s life was not a happy one, and it’s a career that’s been lacking in prominence until now. Jean Seberg decided to use her fame for political ends, and came a cropper of the intelligence services, a series of events which makes her story well worth exhuming in 2020.
And the big news here is Kristen Stewart, an excellent actress and full-blown movie star, who puts everything into making Seberg, the character, into a three-dimensional, complex being. A seemingly chance encounter with Jamal on a flight encourages Seberg to use some of her pin-money for financing the Black Panthers, something that the film equates rather too easily with building children’s playgrounds. To allow us to see the complications of her actions, we have two FRI men on her tail, one a sexist, misogynist lump (Vince Vaughn), then other a younger, more impressionable figure (Jack O’Connell). Through the schism between the two men, we see how the issues divided Seberg’s tormentors; bugging her, harassing her and generally gas-lighting the star, it’s clear that their efforts get under her skin, and some kind of break-down seems inevitable.
Seberg had a distinctive look, and Stewart captures that. But what Stewart also goes after is a sense of agency in Seberg’s action, a longing for meaning and a frustration that her actions precipitate public humiliation in a way that, say, Marlon Brando’s did not. Like Harry Caul in The Conversation, Seberg is driven to distraction, destroying her own life in order to uncover the manner in which she’s being interfered with by the authorities. Stewart nails all this effectively; it’s a great performance in a film that reins in potential histrionics.
The presence of Margaret Qualley links Seberg to Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, another film dealing with an actress circa 1069. Those who squealed with disapproval at the lack of dialogue for Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate would so well to apply here; Seberg shows an actress full of complaint, and angry enough to articulate. The result, of course, is that the treatment of a hot topic means that Seberg will be one of the least seen of 2020’s awards hopefuls; Hollywood likes the idea of women more than it does the idea of listening to what they might have to say.