Review: Seberg — Movies for the Rest of Us

Kristen Stewart stars in this biopic about an actress whose life is destroyed by an obsessive FBI.

Kristen Stewart in a scene from Seaburg

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Seberg

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: R

Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Vince Vaughn, Anthony Mackie

Writers: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse

Director: Benedict Andrews

 

You can take your pick of lowlights from J. Edgar Hoover’s long reign of terror at the FBI; Seberg depicts one of the lowest: The agency’s years-long campaign of harassment and slander against Jean Seberg, an actress/activist who took up the cause of civil rights in the late 1960s.

Kristen Stewart, herself something of a Hollywood firebrand, is a perfect choice to play the tragic star, adopting the pixie hairdo and hollow-eyed look that made Iowa-born Seberg the darling of French New Wave Cinema. We meet her en route from France to audition for one of her few major Hollywood films, the disastrous Clint Eastwood musical Paint Your Wagon. During the long flight, the married Jean meets Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a likewise married black civil rights activist who ignites in Jean twin passions: One of the social justice kind and one of the more carnal type.

But the pair’s political and private entanglements are being monitored from the start by a pair of G-men: the gung-ho bloodhound Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn, offering up his trademark dead-eyed cynic persona) and the somewhat more conflicted Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), who becomes queasy over all the late-night window peeping and bedroom bugging that’s being ordered with salacious abandon from on high.

Seberg presents a chilling account of the FBI’s escalation of torment as it seeks to poison the public’s attitude toward Seberg — and also discredit Jamal in the eyes of other black activists for having taken a white lover. It begins with anonymous phone calls to Jamal’s wife (Zazie Beetz) that replay the sounds of the lovers’ bedroom passion. Then come graphic leaflets posted throughout the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Even after Jean breaks off the romance, the Feds won’t let it go: They spread the false rumor that she has become pregnant with Hakim’s child.

But as the film’s narrative follows a straight line, Stewart’s Jean spirals into the depths of despair and crippling paranoia (if you can call it paranoia when people really are following you). It’s a galvanizing performance, one of the most measured of Stewart’s career (and if you’ve seen her in the harrowing Personal Shopper, you’ll understand what a compliment that is). Jean enters the ordeal already emotionally and physically scarred: A prologue depicts the awful moment when, on the set of Saint Joan, director Otto Preminger allowed the on-screen Inquisition’s execution flames to literally lick the flesh from 17-year-old Seberg’s body. Barely a decade later, Jean moves from simmering suspicion to outright horror, formulating a gnawing certainty that she is being observed day and night. In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, the sobbing actress tears her home apart, searching in vain for eavesdropping instruments while her helpless husband (Yvan Attal) comforts their young son in his bedroom. It’s a compelling tableau of a life torn asunder, inside and out, by powerful, invisible forces.

Blacklisted by Hollywood, scarred by unearned scandal, she muddled through the final decade of her life making largely inconsequential films in Europe. In 1979, after having been missing for 10 days, her body was found in the backseat of her car on a Paris street. At the fadeout, Seberg allows its subject — and its audience — a moment of quiet peace — one that, sadly, was probably denied the real Seberg.

It may be small solace that Seberg finally tells Jean’s tragic story, but it’s never too late to be reminded of the insidious power of gossip — and how it can swallow reputations, causes, and even human lives, whole.

Featured image: Kristen Stewart in Seberg (Amazon Studios)

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