At the tail end of last year, Seberg was given a pro forma release in New York to make it eligible for the Oscars. You can see the logic: The film has another excellent performance from Kristen Stewart as an intense, self-lacerating woman who’s coming apart. More than that, the woman in question is Jean Seberg, the Iowa-bred actress whose waiflike figure and facility with the French language caught the eye of French directors during the New Wave, when France was turning out the world’s best movies. Yet it’s clear why the movie doesn’t see wide release until now — it’s way too ragged to be a credible Oscar candidate.
The film opens with a shot of a teenage Jean dressed as Joan of Arc about to be burned at the stake. So much for subtlety, though it’s useful to note that this did happen for a 1957 blockbuster film called Saint Joan, on which Seberg actually caught fire during the shooting and was left with scars on her body — the entertainment industry started hurting her from the start. The bulk of the film takes place starting in 1968, with Jean leaving her crappy French husband Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) and their son in Paris to travel to Hollywood and audition for the musical Western Paint Your Wagon. Back in the States, she’s caught up in the black liberation movement and Hakim Abdullah Jamal (Anthony Mackie), an educator who preaches African-American self-sufficiency while being careful to steer clear of the radical Black Panthers. Their adulterous affair unfortunately comes to the attention of a young FBI agent (Jack O’Connell) who has just transferred to the West Coast and is initially eager to move up in the bureau by gathering dirt on a movie star deemed a threat to national security.
Director Benedict Andrews made one previous film, a stagey drama called Una that was kept on track by the stage play that it was based on. Here, the filmmakers spread themselves too thin. Cinephiles like me will enjoy watching Stewart re-enact Seberg’s roles in the classic Breathless and the not-classic Macho Callahan, but the film gives us little sense of why her acting career sputtered. (There were reasons for that besides her harassment by the U.S. government and her resulting drug and alcohol abuse.) The FBI agent undergoes a crisis of conscience from all the havoc he’s caused in Jean’s life, and this G-man is too undercharacterized to make that stick. Jean’s agent (Stephen Root) comes off as a cipher, as does Romain Gary, a waste of the distinguished French actor Attal. The film also never mentions that Seberg had an affair with her co-star Clint Eastwood on the set of Paint Your Wagon, which seems significant.
The filmmakers also botch making Jean into a tragic heroine. Different parts of this movie feel like they’re taken from different movies. One moment Jean is giving the black power salute at a rally, and the next she’s popping pills and tearing her house apart looking for listening devices. We never learn where her social conscience comes from, nor do we gain any sense of how that plays into her attraction to Hakim, which is surely also motivated by the desire to retaliate for her husband’s cheating. Stewart is good here, but we’ve seen her play this kind of high-strung, unraveling character before, and the only new thing we learn is that her French is pretty good.
Seberg probably makes the most sense as part of a subcategory of movies with Kristen Stewart as someone who experiences the downside of fame. This is understandable given her own scarring experiences with it during her Twilight years, and it has yielded some great films in Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper. This film isn’t in that class. It wants to make a statement about how female celebrities are shut down when they try to speak their minds, but having the government smear you through a few gossip columnists is a whole other matter from becoming a target of the Twitter mob — just ask my black female colleagues caught up in the Guns Akimbo controversy from this past weekend. Somehow, it seems fitting that the movie ends with the FBI agent meeting Jean face-to-face in Paris and handing her FBI dossier to her. It’s a gesture that requires considerable effort on his part, and in the end, it changes nothing, not the bureau’s policies, not the damage done to her friends, and not the course of Jean’s life, which will end in suicide a decade later. It’s a metaphor for the movie’s own ineffectuality.
Starring Kristen Stewart and Anthony Mackie. Directed by Benedict Andrews. Written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. Rated R.