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David Jenkins

@daveyjenkins

Seberg – first look review

This thin biopic of New Wave icon Jean Seberg plays out with all the depth of a magazine photo shoot.

It brings us no pleasure whatsoever to deliver the news that Seberg, a stilted and slight biopic of the Iowa-born screen icon Jean Seberg, is something of a trainwreck. Part of the problem is the casting of Kristen Stewart in the title role who, despite her best efforts, is just unable to capture the twinkle-eyed spirit of the soft-featured, imp-haired star of films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse. If feels like we’re watching Stewart inserting her own persona into this story, and perhaps even pouncing on the politically ripe material to air some of her own (entirely valid) grievances with regard to privacy and the political lives of celebrities.

The timeline here covers a brief sojourn Seberg spent in Hollywood at the behest of her agent, who was looking to cash-on on her darling status in Europe and plant her into some quickie genre movies. She leaves her husband and son back in Paris and she boards a Pan-Am flight to LA on which she meets the black power activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), and decides to double down on her passion for donating large sums of money to radical political factions fighting for equality in America. The subtext to all this is that, per the establishment, she’s openly framing herself as an enemy of conservative white America, so enter the FBI and her prolonged persecution at the hands of the suited and booted deputies of Uncle Sam.

Jack O’Connell puts in a solid turn as FBI sound guy Jack Soloway, an expert wire tapper who is assigned to collect as much material he can on Seberg – anything to buttress claims that she is a political whack job. And from that set-up, the film plays out in the most pedestrian way possible, as Jean’s initial confidence and pride in her ability to express herself in this way shifts towards paranoia and then depression. Meanwhile, Jack starts to realise that maybe recording every movement of a vulnerable public figure is perhaps not working wonders for her mental health.

The film meanders from scene to scene, with much of the dialogue coming across as the actors merely articulating the themes or referencing the cultural climate of the era. There’s no real dramatic drive, emotion or unexpected twists, no visual flourishes or any formal interest beyond a vast array of impossibly glamorous costumes. Stewart spends much of the film attempting to look sultry in billowing see-through negligees, but these attempts at atmosphere only serve to highlight the overall thinness of the material. Or at least the attempts made by Benedict Andrews to prevent things from getting too dark.

One bright spot is Vince Vaughn in a supporting role as a complete bastard. He plays Jack’s partner Carl, who takes a spiteful glee in causing Seberg immense pain with his underhand methodology. As Jack becomes more and more nervous about the moral imperatives of his job, Carl just wants to go as dark and nasty as possible. And Vaughn is perhaps the only actor in this glossy misfire who feels wholly comfortable in his role – as an unrepentant, backwards-looking shitdog.

Published 30 Aug 2019

Tags: Benedict Andrews French New Wave Kristen Stewart Venice Film Festival

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