'Seberg': Film Review | Venice 2019

Venice Film Festival
Kristen Stewart in 'Seberg'
A melancholy valentine to an idealistic It Girl caught in the political crosshairs.

Kristen Stewart plays nouvelle vague icon Jean Seberg in this account of the FBI surveillance that truncated her Hollywood career, with Jack O'Connell as the investigator needled by conscience.

A fascinating historical footnote tracing the intersection between late-1960s Hollywood and iniquitous American government meddling is explored in director Benedict Andrews' involving second feature, Seberg. This sleek, pleasurably glossy thriller chronicles the FBI's sustained efforts to neutralize actress Jean Seberg as she became a supporter of the Black Panther Party and other civil rights groups. The script doesn't always avoid canned sloganeering, and the pacing could be tighter. But as the gamine with the pixie cut immortalized on the poster for Godard's Breathless, the luminous Kristen Stewart keeps you glued throughout, giving a coolly compelling performance that becomes steadily more poignant as the subject unravels.

Amazon will release the film in the U.S., where curiosity about the process by which America soured on this onetime 17-year-old national sweetheart should help carve out an audience. Coming in the wake of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and covering another angle on the uneasy relationship between the Dream Factory and the broader culture at that time undergoing radical change may draw additional attention. There's also a connection between the two movies in a role played by fast-rising talent Margaret Qualley (the Manson follower known as Pussycat in Quentin Tarantino's film), though Stewart's key support comes here from Jack O'Connell as the Los Angeles division FBI agent assigned to monitor Seberg.

It's strange that this story has taken so long to go the biopic route. Jodie Foster optioned a Seberg biography in the early '90s that never made it to the screen. Perhaps the most satisfying treatment up to now of the star's sad comet-like trajectory has been in Mark Rappaport's 1995 feature essay, From the Journals of Jean Seberg, a docu-narrative collage that liberally mixed fact and conjectural fiction within a broader context about women in movies viewed through the male gaze.

The script by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (they wrote the Jesse Owens biopic Race and WWII Keira Knightley romance, The Aftermath) makes implicit points about the parallels between the period and contemporary America — in the strategic uses of fake news, NSA domestic surveillance programs and resurgent racial divides that never really went away. But more interesting is Andrews' knowing manipulation of the echoes of Seberg in Stewart, who also became famous at a young age and then set about proving herself as an actor of substance via consistently adventurous career choices. And a fabulous haircut. The path to professional legitimacy was more difficult for Seberg.

The movie opens with her on the shoot for her 1957 debut, Saint Joan, chained to the stake as the French martyr in a scene where a special effects accident caused her to sustain burn injuries. An oblique reference to Otto Preminger hints at the director's sadistic treatment of Seberg, the Iowan Cinderella he discovered in a talent search who was no better served by their second collaboration, Bonjour Tristesse.

By the time she's traveling back to Los Angeles in 1968 with her agent, Walt Breckman (Stephen Root), Seberg's career and personal life had been transformed by her star-making role in Breathless and her (second) marriage to French novelist Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), with whom she had a son. But Jean remains nervous about Hollywood and ambivalent about making anything she perceives as fluff, which is the case with Paint Your Wagon, the Joshua Logan musical Walt is urging her to do.

The two are alone in first class on a Pan Am flight from Paris when a commotion spills from coach into their cabin as African American activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) bursts in demanding more dignified treatment for his fellow passenger Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X. Jean volunteers to give up their seats for them, and at LAX she poses for press photos with representatives of the Black Power movement, joining them in the raised-fist salute. Clashes between African Americans and police had already been making news, and Seberg had a history of making donations to civil rights groups. The idea also is subtly planted that Jean's political consciousness had been further informed by progressive European attitudes and the social ferment of the time in Paris.

Hakim is on the Feds' watch list as a subversive seeking to unite "radical Negro groups" to overthrow the government. Los Angeles division chief Frank Ellroy (Colm Meaney) is impressed by the tech savvy of ambitious young agent Jack Solomon (O'Connell), partnering him with more experienced hothead Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn) and authorizing a program of bugging and wire taps that extends to Jean once she and Hakim begin an affair. In one clunky line that sets up a schematic payoff later in the movie, Jean earnestly asks what she can do to help the cause, and the charismatic Hakim tells her: "If you can change one mind, you can change the world."

Cinematographer Rachel Morrison shoots the principal Los Angeles action in a wash of sparkling California light, particularly in scenes around Seberg's stylish, glass-walled Coldwater Canyon home, with its Hockey-esque swimming pool — images that somehow suggest both the high visibility and the isolation of Hollywood fame. Jahmin Assa's production design provides gorgeous period eye candy throughout, in swanky bars, restaurants and hotel rooms, and Michael Wilkinson's costumes, worn by Stewart with the effortless ownership of a supermodel, will have lovers of late '60s/early '70s high fashion swooning — from smart travel wear to elegant evening ensembles and sexy lingerie.

The silky-smooth beauty of the visuals serves to make the covert intrusion of Federal agents into Jean's life all the more of a violation, and a scene involving her cute pet dog while in New York for the poorly received Paint Your Wagon premiere is quite distressing. (No mention is made of Seberg's alleged affair with co-star Clint Eastwood.)

While Jack struggles to allay the suspicions of his med-student wife Linette (Qualley) about his long absences, the increasingly underhand tactics of Ellroy and Kowalski to discredit Seberg in the public eye begin to make him ethically uncomfortable. It's established early on that he's a collector of vintage Steve Rogers comics, and the transition of this fictional character from a would-be Captain America to a deeply disillusioned man, remorseful over his role in destroying lives, is nicely drawn in O'Connell's sensitive performance.

The emotional toll on Jean's marriage to Romain is mirrored in the strain on Hakim and his wife Dorothy (Zazie Beetz), a teacher at their foundation's school program for underprivileged black kids. Beetz makes a strong impression in a small handful of scenes as an empowered woman who values her self-worth more than all the movie-star dollars that can help her cause. The additional tensions between the Jamal camp and the more hardline Black Panthers mostly provide background texture.

As always, the camera loves Stewart, and she shows her integrity by conveying churning depths with economical means. The role goes light on flashy dramatic explosions, but there's a genuinely affecting build in the amplification of fear, paranoia, anger and sorrow as Jean's defiant refusal to abandon her beliefs under mounting pressure is broken down. When the FBI campaign against her becomes viciously personal, exemplifying the absolute worst of J. Edgar Hoover's tenure at the Bureau, the psychological damage to Jean is devastating. Anchoring a movie that's well-acted across the board, Stewart is riveting, her fully inhabited presence resonating over end credits text about Seberg's subsequent years and tragic death at 40, the circumstances of which remain murky.

Working on a bigger canvas here than in his 2016 feature debut Una, which was a two-hander largely locked into its stage roots, Australian theater director Andrews demonstrates assured control even if the film hits a minor slack patch here and there. But the understated noir feel works for the material, with Jed Kurzel's score transitioning from cool jazzy sounds into more suspenseful moods as events turn darker. Lovely use also is made of period tunes, notably Scott Walker's "It's Raining Today" and Nina Simone's Dylan cover, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues."

Production companies: Automatik, Indikate Production, Totally Commerical Films, BP Production
Distribution: Amazon Studios
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack O'Connell, Margaret Qualley, Zazie Beetz, Yvan Attal, Stephen Root, Colm Meaney, Vince Vaughn, Anthony Mackie, Grantham Coleman
Director: Benedict Andrews
Screenwriter: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Producers: Fred Berger, Kate Garwood, Bradley Pilz, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Stephen Hopkins, Marina Acton, Alan Ritchson
Executive producers: Anna Waterhouse, Joe Shrapnel, Marshal L. Swinton, Dan Spilo, Phillip W. Shaltz, Emilie Georges, Naima Abed, Peter Touche, Stephen Spence
Director of photography: Rachel Morrison
Production designer: Jahmin Assa
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson
Music: Jed Kurzel
Editor: Pamela Martin
Casting: John Papsidera
Sales: Memento Films International
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)

102 minutes