Actress Kristen Stewart has a way of occasionally choosing interesting parts in movies. For me, her portrayal of 1960s and 70s actress Jean Seberg in Amazon’s production SEBERG is her most intriguing and dynamic role yet. However, I freely admit to having not diligently followed Kristen’s career. I’ve seen her in less movies than I can count on both hands. That said, Ms. Stewart’s natural brooding quality is effectively congruent with this particular film’s main subject. I sense that she has come into her own as a fully mature actress through playing the beautiful, complex, and troubled Ms. Seberg.
Loosely based on Jean Seberg’s life from 1968 into 1972, the story focuses on her involvement with the Black Panthers, subsequent surveillance and persecution by the FBI, and eventual mental decline. Departing Paris, France in 1968 to star in the musical Western PAINT YOUR WAGON, Ms. Seberg meets studly civil rights activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) while flying to California. Out of ennui and wanting to be a part of something far more meaningful than a frivolous movie project, Jean promptly inserts herself into his life and that of the Black Panthers, bankrolling their cause.
Depending on the time of day, the interior scenes of Jean’s Southern California home, with its many floor to ceiling windows, are filled with a dim-lit to sunny ambiance. Shortly after she has met her lover-to-be Hakim Jamal, we view her lounging languidly in a thin negligee, clearly bored and lonely, Ms. Seberg’s much older husband (novelist and film director Romain Gary, played here by Yvan Attal) having opted to remain with their young son in Paris. I immediately thought of a lovely bird in a gilded cage as well as a woman being spied upon and secretly admired.
We viewers are immediately drawn into being voyeurs of a glamorous film star who is ready to throw caution to the winds. Enter the movie’s leading man, young and gorgeous FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), who is assigned to spy on Ms. Seberg because of her new affiliation with the subversive Black Panthers. Solomon becomes obsessed with his subject, spending hours photographing her from a surveillance van and listening in to her conversations, which are being taped. O’Connell is very convincing as a man conflicted between duty to job and country on one hand with his desire of and growing concern for the daring, exquisite Seberg on the other. Everyone else around him in the FBI are either impersonal colleagues or unsympathetic bureaucrats, particularly his brutish work partner Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn) and seemingly neckless and heartless field boss Frank Ellroy (Colm Meaney). This leaves Solomon feeling isolated. He draws comfort over being consumed with his sexy, vivacious work project as he surveils her day and night. Periodically, Jack comes home to his increasingly alienated-feeling medical student wife Linette Solomon (Qualley).
I was struck by the frustrated passion Seberg and Solomon each experience in their differently constrained lives. The former tries to have fun while doing good for others in an increasingly untenable circumstance of tensions. These are fueled by her appearance-oriented fame and related loneliness and dissatisfaction coupled then with her being swept up in fighting the good, meaningful fight against racism. But, among the Black Panthers, Jean stands out like an elegant giraffe fraternizing with, well, panthers. Her wealth and white beauty are used against her, resulting at one point in a tense exchange with Hakim’s angry African American wife Dorothy Jamal (Zazie Beetz), who has been tipped off to her husband’s infidelity with Seberg. We are reminded here of the very real social tensions existing between white women in a higher income bracket and women of color with less resources and privilege. The former mean well but often can be unaware and insensitive over how they choose to go about doing their good deeds with and for their oppressed sisters/peers.
Agent Solomon finds himself contributing to others’ problems more than not in the name of patriotic duty. His naive idealism becomes dirtied, as foreshadowed in an early scene whereby Solomon fishes out of the kitchen trash his 1941 published #1 issue CAPTAIN AMERICA comic book. His wife Linette (Margaret Qualley) had thoughtlessly thrown it out. As the drama steadily unfolds, the preoccupied and frustrated Solomon grows angry and guilt-ridden, which Jack O’Connell powerfully conveys.
Seberg’s lover Hakim is somewhat fetishized here by her, the “Mandingo,” or muscular, well-endowed black man representing forbidden fruit for a white female and the sexual rush that goes with courting potential danger, including deep shaming. The reverse is also true for Hakim cheating with a white woman. Such a transgression– even wrongly suspected– historically brought on lynchings of black men. The doomed, taboo affair is presented tenderly, with Jamal portrayed sympathetically in this film.
From what little movie footage I’ve seen of Jean Seberg (having only viewed her very early film THE MOUSE THAT ROARED all the way through), she was clearly a sensual and striking woman. With a similar look to the older Audrey Hepburn, who was also waif-like and often wore her hair short, Seberg’s sexuality was more bold, which suited the establishment-bucking late 1960s and early 70s. Sadly, her movie projects became pedestrian, unremarkable during this time period, Hollywood offering her mediocre fare after she had done avant-garde and more vibrant projects (e.g., BREATHLESS) in Europe. It is no wonder this intelligent, sexually precocious and liberated actress sought excitement and meaning in her life off-screen.
Jean’s growing paranoia is clearly justified in SEBERG. Those around her, such as her husband Gary and agent/handler Walt Breckman (Stephen Root), are initially skeptical of Jean’s assertions that her phones and house are bugged. She turns to alcohol and pills to relieve her mounting stress.
To be clear, this is a white-centered movie where African Americans and their fight for equality are a back-drop and support to the story about a very privileged Caucasian woman who is part of the white run Hollywood establishment. If Ms. Seberg had, say, ventured instead into white, anti-war hippie culture, the movie would be very different, including probably completely devoid of African Americans, except as incidental bystanders. The one Latinx individual in the film is the actress’s housemaid, a reminder that Jean actively participates a-top the economically racist social order. Obviously, this movie is deeply tinged with racism. Yet also, in refreshing contrast, African Americans are portrayed sympathetically, with the positive community-building efforts of the Black Panthers getting show-cased here. For once, this social activist organization is fleshed out more for what it truly was instead of being negatively shown, yet again, as simply comprised of scary domestic insurgents or terrorists to be quelled, which the mainstream media unfairly portrayed them as being, ad nauseam. With the current existence of Black Lives Matter, the parallels to the Black Panthers make SEBERG feel quite currently relevant for me. It is the FBI with its shady COINTELPRO that is villainous in this story. And with the current White House administration pushing vicious smear-oriented agendas on as large a scale– if not larger– than this now defunct Intelligence program, the movie is relevant to the present day in that respect as well.
Jean Seberg died at forty years of age under suspicious circumstances, some seven years after the year SEBERG concludes. This screen drama is psychologically gripping and aesthetically pleasing, the assorted music of the era comprising a pleasant sound track. Many of the clothes Kristen Stewart wears for her role are fun to look at. There are a few moments where the actress seems uncannily like Seberg, particularly around the eyes and in some facial expressions. Her face and that of Jack O’Connell’s are the real stars of the film, both often like beautiful live paintings or landscapes of shifting emotions. The well-done lighting further enhanced this effect of them over me the viewer.
The late 1960s are a fascinating time for me and SEBERG effectively conveys a slice of the upheaval and sensibilities of that brief but loaded period.
The entire cast is excellent, but, in particular, Kristen Stewart and Jack O’Connell do solid, thoughtful, and noteworthy performances in this little gem of a biopic.