Current Issue #488

Film Review:

Kristen Stewart is surprisingly strong in this study of pivotal years in the life of tragic movie star Jean Seberg (1938 – 1979), but she’s let down by Adelaide-born director Benedict Andrews and an iffy, even icky aspect.

Not really a biopic because it handles only a short time in Jean’s life from 1968 onward, this makes its subject something of a Hollywood martyr and strains for relevancy to the point of awkwardness.

Andrews (who studied at Flinders University) obviously has interest in studies of psychologically fragile women (his previous pic was the fictional Una), and they don’t come much more psychologically fragile than Jean, who’s underplayed by Kristen with a commitment lacking in more than a few of her previous roles. Here she’s introduced leaving her (then) husband Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) and young son in France for their home in Los Angeles, and these early scenes, where Kristen speaks French with an American accent, warn us that she’s not exactly in a good place.

On the plane she’s advised by agent Walt Breckman (Stephen Root) to take a role in what was to become the notorious musical flop Paint Your Wagon, but when she sees Black Panther Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie a.k.a. Falcon from Marvel’s Avengers) making a scene about being refused first class seats, she’s intrigued and somewhat smitten. Later posing for photos with the Panthers, she then seeks out Jamal at his Compton home base and one thing leads to another, despite the little fact that he’s married to Dorothy (Zazie Beetz in another Marvel connection).

This is all happening while the Panthers are being surveilled with lo-fi technology by the FBI as part of their COINTELPRO operation, and Jack Solomon (English actor Jack O’Connell) becomes more and more uneasy as the Bureau, with J. Edgar Hoover’s permission, sets its sights on monitoring – and later harassing – Jean. His growing disgust doesn’t sit well, however, with his superior Carl Kowalski, a frighteningly racist, misogynist, violent and smug G-Man played by Vince Vaughn in scary mode, and far, far away from his many goofy comedies.

There are moments here that should please classic film buffs, including a recreation of the screen test that the teenage Jean did that led to her being plucked from Iowan obscurity and cast as the lead in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957) and mentions of her French New Wave/‘Nouvelle Vague’ status after appearing in Jean-Luc Godard’s trendsetting Breathless (1960). But this is less interested in her movies, and concentrates more upon her passion for radical politics and the descent into the dangerous paranoia that came later, and Kristen captures all of that complexity with a dedication that must have proved exhausting. So much so, it seems, that she chose the sheer inanity of the new Charlie’s Angels as her next project after this one.

And… cut!

Reviewer Rating

SEBERG (M) is in cinemas from 30 January

DM Bradley

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