Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: TIFF / Amazon Studios)

'Seberg' review: Kristen Stewart excels in portraying the life of Jean Seberg


A good preliminary to watching Seberg would be viewing Breathless, the 1960 film that more firmly endeared Jean Seberg to the French and made her an international star. It’s a perfect convergence of Jean-Luc Godard at the height of the French New Wave, a young Jean-Paul Belmondo at his coolest, and the pert, gamine Jean Seberg, playing an American expatriate, making carefree banter in heavily accented French and exuding enigmatic charm, but a dangerous femme fatale beneath her outward sweetness. The film, besides introducing Godard and his referential, often groundbreaking style to the world, serves as an introduction to Seberg’s work and personality. It was also a welcome professional breakthrough for Seberg. After a stressful filming in 1957 of Joan of Arc under the famously harsh and intimidating Otto Preminger; a difficult experience the following year with Preminger’s next film, BonjourTristesse; and poor reviews for both films from American critics, the positive reception of Breathless, particularly in France, was both refreshing and a tremendous boost to her career. Breathless and its co-stars became wildly popular, Seberg’s appearance and boyish haircut copied by young women everywhere. 

Seberg, the biography, deals mainly with the period in the actress’ life after her fame had become well established. It opens on a flashback — and a bit of foreshadowing, as it turns out — a scene from Joan of Arc, in which Joan is being burned at the stake. Due to severe mismanagement of the set — and rather callous indifference on the part of the director — Seberg herself is badly burned and permanently scarred. (According to co-star Deborah Kerr, director Otto Preminger offered her the lead in his next film partly by way of apology for the mistreatment she endured while filming Joan of Arc.) The injury is allowed to represent an active but difficult period in Seberg’s professional life, prior to her work with Godard. For Seberg, who admitted in interview to being a nervous actor who at one time felt the camera to be like a gun aimed at her, and who described her experience with Preminger as being ‘terrorised,’ the sense of acceptance, and the less trying atmosphere on set, must have been a tremendous relief. From the burning incident, the film immediately moves ahead to 1968, when Seberg, married and with a young child, is a confirmed film star, living in Paris and with every reason to be hopeful about her future career. The main body of the story begins from here. 

Kristen Stewart plays Jean Seberg, which must be considered an act of supreme confidence, or at least artistic daring. For any actor to portray such an iconic screen legend must be regarded as a challenge, with the risk of being seen as, at best, a good actor playing a great one. As it turns out, the casting was inspired. Stewart’s performance has been praised in general; even the most negative reviews of Seberg have withheld criticism for the actual portrayal of Jean Seberg, and commended Stewart for her work. It’s a lively, naturalistic depiction, suitable for a biography that focuses largely on the subject’s private life. Wisely, there is no attempt to precisely mimic Jean Seberg’s voice and manner, beyond the famous short haircut; it is a performance, not an impersonation, and her character, attitudes, and concerns — the main focus of the film — are expressed clearly. In fact, the acting in Seberg may be its strongest point.

Jean Seberg in Bonjour tristesse, 1958. (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

During the Toronto International Film Festival, Kristen Stewart spoke of her preparation for the role. Stewart noted that actors of the time generally performed in very scripted, confined ways; while Jean Seberg went against the norm. Seberg’s acting was more natural, what Stewart describes as “more available,” in a way that excited audiences and helped to change the nature of cinema, at a time when it was already rapidly evolving. Asked if the idea of playing Jean Seberg was intimidating, Stewart acknowledged the challenge of replicating Seberg’s vocal range, as well as her inimitable “presence” as an actress; but said that she felt “safe” accepting the role largely because of her confidence that director Benedict Andrews would do justice to Seberg’s biography. Andrews himself expressed a tremendous respect for Jean Seberg, and the way she, “Set a new path toward what truth was in cinema.” Beyond that, cast and director seemed to take the responsibility of recreating Seberg’s life seriously, perhaps even reverently. There was even a superstitious notion among the director and cast that Jean Seberg was present during filming: when a stray cat entered the set and insisted on remaining, watching the process day after day, they half-jokingly concluded that it was Seberg herself returning to oversee their work. 

However, it is not Seberg’s career that is the main focus of the film. The developments in Jean Seberg’s life which are central to the storyline begin when she travels from Paris to Los Angeles in 1968, to prepare for her role in a Hollywood film. On the flight, she encounters American civil rights activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), escorting the widow of Malcolm X, both of whom have been refused First Class seats. Indignant at the segregation of airline seats, Seberg speaks up in their support. It was an action that accurately represents Jean Seberg. Seberg scriptwriters Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel remarked during a TIFF press conference that the actress was driven to help worthy causes, and was particularly sympathetic toward efforts at racial equality. She joined the NAACP when she was only fourteen, and had a history of wanting to help where help seemed needed, ranging from supporting charitable organisations, to her practice of taking in stray animals. Seberg’s husband, writer Romain Gary, once said of Jean Seberg that “she had a case of sympathy at first sight.” This drive to be of use, and the emotional response to injustice, comes across in the film, clearly but without undue sentimentality. The situation gains public attention when they disembark. Jamal speaks to Seberg on the tarmac, and briefly introduces his associates. The press are gathered at the airport, and when Jamal and his fellow civil rights workers pose for a photograph with their fists upraised in the well known ‘black power’ gesture, Seberg impulsively joins them in making the gesture. It is a turning point in her life. FBI agents who have been watching the event from a distance had dismissed the actress’ presence on the plane as unimportant. When she is photographed with the others, she gains the attention of the FBI.

The film uses a dual plot format, which follows Jean Seberg’s life, and at the same time the actions of FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) and his associates. Agent Solomon is an honest, idealistic young man who genuinely believes the FBI is working solely to stop crime and protect the public. He readily follows orders when instructed to place Jean Seberg under surveillance, and later to intensify the surveillance, to tap her phone, place listening devices in her home. The film’s co-writers indicate that Agent Jack Solomon is a fictional character, but is a realistic composite of the agents who followed Seberg in the 1960s. Screenwriter Joe Shrapnel confirmed, “everything Jack and his associates does, is something that the FBI actually did.” He felt that both Seberg and Agent Solomon are presented as characters who set out to do the right thing, but found themselves taking a wrong or harmful direction. The writers collected background information by meeting with people who were involved in political activism at the time, and who had encountered the FBI, as well as through files available through the Freedom of Information Act which, although heavily redacted, confirmed the suspected details of FBI surveillance of Seberg and others. Co-writer Anna Waterhouse stated firmly, “we know what they did to her,” and that they also became aware “how dark that period in politics was, and how the FBI was just out of control.”

(Credit: TIFF / Amazon Studios)

Gradually, Agent Solomon becomes aware of the FBI’s peculiar fixation on black civil rights activists, treating them as a serious threat to the United States. Then-director of the FBI, Herbert Hoover, does not appear as a character, but his existence and oversight are constantly implied. Hoover’s mistrust of black Americans led him to order agents to spy even on black artists, musicians, and poets, and to direct punitive actions against white supporters and racially mixed relationships; openly political activists alarmed him tremendously. Hoover’s dread of organisations like the Black Panthers influenced FBI policy, his intense, seemingly personal dislike of their allies coming through in orders to go beyond simple surveillance, into behind-the-scenes persecution. This approach is ordered for Jean Seberg.

As the divided plotline continues, we follow Jean Seberg’s turmoil as FBI surveillance, at first unsuspected by her, leads to both private facts and malicious rumours being spread about her; her career declining as desirable roles mysteriously become unavailable; her emotional stability weakening as she suspects, but cannot prove, that she is being spied on. Some of the impact of the FBI’s persecution can be read in her career after 1968, and the nature of the roles she was able to get. Moreover, she becomes aware that her friends in the civil rights movement have been subjected to the same kind of surveillance, and are also suffering the consequences. At the same time, Agent Jack Solomon’s self-respect, family life, and professional security are compromised as he becomes increasingly doubtful about the wisdom, or even the legality, of the orders he receives. The unrestrained nature of FBI actions of the time are represented by Jack Solomon’s associate, the volatile Agent Carl Kowolski, who feels entitled to virtually any intrusion on surveillance subjects. Kowolski is played by Vince Vaughan in a violent and callous performance Kristen Stewart accurately describes as “frightening.” The sometimes melodramatic and conventional writing is largely overcome by the performance of the two lead actors, making their inner struggles seem noble even when the choices they make are not particularly admirable. 

A conclusion which reveals the inner workings of the FBI and vindicates Seberg would be satisfying, but not true to life. The truth of the matter is made clear, but with a cynically realistic understanding of how little, at the time, could have been done about it. While Seberg is not blatantly political, it does deal with the consequences of a clash between personal lives and overbearing, and ethically tainted, officialdom. The filmmakers mused during their press conference about the challenge of making the pain of Seberg’s situation clear to present-day viewers. Director Benedict Andrews considers Seberg not only a biography, but also a story about the importance of personal privacy, and the conflict between an artist like Jean Seberg needing to make herself, as an artist, open and vulnerable to the public, while at the same time “that very precious, vulnerable space is being invaded by the same mechanics used to make cinema: cameras and microphones.” He was intrigued by “the question of what happens to an actress when that pressure is placed on them; how do they survive that, how are they transformed by that, what happens with the paranoia of that experience? That,” Andrews concluded, “seemed a very timely and urgent story to tell.” The FBI surveillance, the manipulation of media reports, are things the film displays in an early form, “still in the petri dish,” of present-day actions of that kind. On the same theme, co-writer Anna Waterhouse commented on how accustomed we have become to the idea of being heard or seen constantly, that the government is watching or listening. While “it’s an appalling idea,” she remarks, we’re largely resigned to it; Jean Seberg and her contemporaries were not. The film shows the reactions, the shock and humiliation, and the ultimate destruction, of sensitive people who had not yet become acquiescent to that kind of invasion.