Seberg: A tribute to the French New Wave actress’s legacy

Seberg is a political thriller directed by Benedict Andrews, from a screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Amy Waterhouse. Portrayed by Kristen Stewart, Jean Seberg was not only a pioneer of French New Wave cinema, but also a staunch activist, funding the Black Panther Party (3.0/5.0).

Review by Junior Associate Beatrice Viri

Seberg starts off with titular Jean Seberg, portrayed by Kristen Stewart, bidding her family in France goodbye as she heads to Hollywood for a new performance. On the flight to Los Angeles, Malcom X follower and activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) causes civil disobedience and demands for an elderly black woman to be promoted to first class. Taken with his charisma and stubborn prowess, Seberg offers her seat — and when exiting the plane, takes a picture with the press as Jamal advocates for the Black Panther Party.

As her career flourishes in Hollywood, Seberg continues to fraternize with Jamal, beginning an affair and donating both money and time to his halfway house. She also makes friends with Jamal’s wife Dorothy (Zazie Beetz), and encourages her son Diego (Gabriel Sky) and husband Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) to play nice, for a sense of unity in a time of racial tension. 

But both Hollywood and the FBI are enraged by this display of solidarity, and the COINTELPRO program is established in retaliation. Newcomer Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) and his boss Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn) are assigned to defame Seberg’s image and cause bad publicity to shame the actress’s involvement in the Black Power movement. When Seberg isn’t home, her house is wiretapped, and the duo survey her every move. Her affair is leaked, and relationships around her crumble; overwhelming paranoia overtakes and results in inevitable downfall.  As if the mental anguish isn’t enough, Carl pushes the FBI’s director to leak information that Seberg’s baby is Jamal’s and will be half-black when born. It is a blatant lie as Seberg was impregnated by a student in Mexico, but causes public outcry, and the stress along with her mental state causes daughter Nina to die after two days. 

Mimicking the events of real life Jean Seberg’s life with a look into fictional Agent Solomon’s struggle with the FBI’s grey morality, Seberg is a political thriller that plays more like a soap opera. It’s not that the movie is bad, per se. It’s simply just “fine”. Kristen Stewart has served better performances; though her performance is evocative in some moments, others felt choppy and awkward. However, it may just be the overall film; Seberg isn’t a memorable tribute to a revolutionary actress. Nonetheless, it’s a good introduction to those who aren’t too keen on who Seberg was. It’s also very interesting to note that Stewart reenacted Seberg’s Joan of Arc and Breathless, the titles where Seberg rose to fame.

Though I understand the intention of adding a sympathetic cop, in reality, the FBI destroyed this woman’s mental health to the point of suicide. Trying to redeem history through a tribute does not take away from the fact that COINTELPRO essentially killed Seberg and was a corrupt government-funded force targeting activists. Police brutality is an epidemic, and while I understand that many cops are good-hearted, we must not forget the many lives lost due to such cruelty. Plot-wise, the entire good-cop/bad-cop side story distracted from the main subject, which should have been Seberg herself.

Solomon’s wife Linette (Margaret Qualley) is also one with lost potential; though she’s put in the movie as a stark contrast to the 60’s housewife and is studying to become a doctor, they do nothing else with her and simply cast her aside. She is simply there to add to Solomon’s narrative, that he is a good man in a corrupt force as he lets his wife have autonomy while Kowalski is a misogynist to his wife and daughter. But this sympathetic white man character has been done too many times before, and the trope is stale at best. 

It’s not that the movie is necessarily bad, it just feels generic and predictable. For an audience that doesn’t know much about Jean Seberg like myself, I found her story muddled by a side plot; Dayna, more knowledgeable about the actress than I and a fan of Kristen Stewart, found it unremarkable. Again, we would simply describe it as “fine” — but at least, it did give some insight to who she was, so if any fans are itching for content, it’s there though run-of-the-mill.

Does Seberg pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

If it does, it’s very vaguely.

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