In the late 60s, you would have been hard pressed to find something that could put the willies up the American government more than a high-profile, white French actress engaging in extramarital relations with a member of the Black Panther movement. In the frenzied climate of fear and paranoia, all of which were rooted in a desperate attempt to maintain an unjust, discriminatory status quo, the resources allocated to the FBI were substantial; their remit almost without bounds.
Kristen Stewart brings to life the actress in question, New Wave siren Jane Seberg, and does so with a performance that will surely shed any vestiges of unfavourable teen-franchise baggage. This is a turn-and-a-half and ranks as her best, alongside her performance Olivier Assayas’s spooky and ambiguous Personal Shopper.
After the release of Breathless in 1960, the Jean-Luc Godard instant classic, Seberg’s star was on the ascent. She was riding the crest of the New Wave with a legion of new fans. Exciting doors had opened up to her. This had previously looked unlikely. Years earlier she had endured harrowing experiences with Otto Preminger in his turkey, Saint Joan (based on the story of Joan of Arc). Not only had the film flopped, causing Seberg professional paralysis, but she had suffered physically after the pyre stunt burned her face and body.
The focus of this film is what happened after her success. Seberg is sat in first class aboard a flight to the States when she observes the civil rights cause right in front of her very eyes. Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) is travelling with Malcolm X’s widow and although they have the money to sit in the higher class, they are being prohibited from doing so because of their colour. Jean Seberg looks on before speaking out, identifying herself with Hakim and the Black Panther plight.
A romantic liaison morphs into a full-blown affair between the pair despite their respective longstanding relationships. Hakim is already under surveillance, so any coming together falls right into the FBI’s lap. Listening on from a knackered old van are officers Carl Kowalski, played by Vince Vaughan, and Jack Solomon, whose thick American accent is commandeered by an impressive Jack O’Connell.
It is true that in some ways, director Benedict Andrews doesn’t put a foot wrong. He pushes the narrative along with a textbook sense of measure and execution, making the film solid. Why does it feel as though something is lacking then? Well, maybe it is because it is because Seberg lacks any distinct personality whatsoever. If you extract the true story aspect, the outcome is like dumping The Lives of Others, Argo and BlacKkKansman into a blender and pouring out the mixture into a 102-minute movie. The burnt primary colours offer a clammy, cloying humidity and the escalating sense of mistrust loads the scenes with an increasing sense of portent. But there are no dazzling left or right turns. No moments of virtuosic showmanship.
Andrews clearly has faith in the material. That’s understandable. There are some true stories obscured in the mists of time that are waiting to be excavated and retold. The life, times and ultimate tragedy of Jane Seberg surely stands as one of them. It’s just that inexplicably, her unique life has rendered an ordinary film.