Benedict Andrews’ retelling of FBI’s pursuit of the French New Wave star under the Hoover administration relies far too heavily on broad stokes.
Just what is it about biopics that forces otherwise-daring artists through utter tedium? Is it the fear of denigrating that late beloved someone? Is it the hope that a true story will do all the heavy lifting? Worse yet, is it the concept that too much specificity will out the movie as not knowing what it’s doing? Benedict Andrews’ film is forever in search of the “inherently interesting story” so many movies of its kind yearn for. What it forgets is that having a perspective is what actually matters. Distance can be tantalizing, but in the case of Seberg, it’s more of a crutch.
It frames itself as objective at first. It’s the late 1960s, and Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) is still riding the success she earned in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. Now she’s living in Paris with her husband, Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), and son, Diego (Gabriel Sky). Their discussions silkily weave between English and French. The locations, shot by Rachel Morrison, carry a sun-drenched haze that’s almost unstuck in time. All the while, Stewart’s emotional register acts as a sedative to the bolds and pastels of Michael Wilkinson’s costume design. None of this is enough to carry an entire movie, but it’s enough to get one started, right?
However, Seberg doesn’t go beyond that. Andrews’ direction restricts these characters to a proscenium in a way that seems entirely unintentional. Perhaps some more direct tension will liven things up? Enter Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a Black Panther and civil rights activist who makes Seberg’s acquaintance during a flight to Los Angeles. Alas, Seberg has little interest in him or its other Black characters beyond their surfaces, which is more than a minor issue for a movie largely about systemic racism during the Hoover administration.
So, just what do we know about Jamal? Well, he’s a Muslim convert, and he’s escorting Malcolm X’s widow back home when we first meet him. These details would lend texture to the tale—that is, if it had any sense of scope. In Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse‘s script, these kinds of details are a way throwing—nay, spoon-feeding—the audience a bone. The writing never demonstrates Seberg’s move from actor to activist. It simply has her declare her interests like a broken record, and the dialogue is as blatant as it is pandering.
But the issue here isn’t just how artificial everyone acts. It’s how their thinly veiled morality acts as a quick and ineffective attempt at circumventing the white savior trope. Rather, the picture falls further and further into these clichés as the conflicts deepen. A romance forms between Seberg and Jamal; a target grows on her back courtesy as the FBI tries to break apart the Black Panther movement. Jamal’s wife (Zazie Beetz) grows increasingly at odds against Seberg; two agents (Jack O’Connell and Vince Vaughn) use it to undermine the star’s image and compromise the movement.
There’s no visual arc to underline the journey, nothing to say about the mutual exclusivities our culture assigns to arts and politics.
As the movie forces itself into a split-narrative structure, it begins to approach both the activists and the FBI agents with equal sympathy. Consequently, it relegates those onscreen to glorified chess pieces. (Margaret Qualley, for one, gets a generic wife role to artificially flesh out one of the agents’ personal lives.) Very little happens in the first as these pieces chase each other’s tails, and it’s only around the 50-minute mark that Stewart gets some material worthy of her talents.
It’s when Seberg becomes aware that someone is watching her that Stewart gets to tap into something below the surface. Paranoia gives way to hopelessness, which helps distract from just how poor of a job the movie does at tying its parts together. She’s easily the best part of the movie, but when the movie is at its worst, it drags her down with it. Unfortunately, there’s much more of the latter. There’s no visual arc to underline the journey, nothing to say about the mutual exclusivities our culture assigns to arts and politics. As for everyone depicted here? They’re just a bunch of casualties.
Seberg is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.