Iowa-born actress Jean Seberg was an as an icon of French New Wave cinema who made 34 movies in Europe and Hollywood. Her signature pixie haircut was a sensation, inspiring a generation to cut their hair and Madonna to copy the look for her “Papa Don’t Preach” video. Seberg was a favorite of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut who wrote, “When Jean Seberg is on the screen, which is all the time, you can’t look at anything else.” She was also one of the best-known targets of the FBI COINTELPRO project, an illegal surveillance operation aimed at disrupting American political organizations. A new film starring Kristen Stewart as the star details the how the FBI ruined her reputation.
As Australian director Benedict Andrews begins the story Seberg is already a famous. She makes headlines when she publicly supports the Black Panther Party and privately carries on an affair with Black Power leader, Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie). Her interest in political causes—and financial support of civil rights organizations—also attracts the attention of the FBI who place her under surveillance. The big brass are determined to undermine her career but when Agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) sees the toll the operation is taking on Seberg’s mental health and her marriage to French novelist Romain Gary, he tries to intervene.
“Seberg” is a by-the-book retelling of the defining time of Seberg’s career but it never allows us to get to know her. Half the film is eaten up by the procedural aspects of the FBI’s campaign, spending too much time with side characters like Vince Vaughn’s villainous agent and O’Connell’s goody-two-shoes agent. The heart and soul of the story should be Seberg. The thing that should drive the story is how she was pushed to paranoia by the surveillance, not the surveillance itself.
Stewart does what she can with the clichéd dialogue but the inertness of the storytelling doesn’t allow her to portray Seberg’s innate renegade charisma.
“Seberg” is well appointed—the costumes and sets evocatively conjure up the late 1960s setting—but never creates a convincing character.