The sad unravelling of the ‘Breathless’ star
Dir. Benedict Andrews. US. 2019. 102 mins.
The sad unravelling of iconic, socially-conscious actress Jean Seberg at the hands of Hoover’s FBI proves a quietly involving story and a modish collaboration between director Benedict Andrews (Una) and his star Kristen Stewart. Seberg somehow manages to pull off a tricky combination of radical politics, inter-racial sex and Hollywood tragedy while styling Stewart in Chanel. It’s quite a balancing act, but this is a film in which the story is just about strong enough to pull that heavy cart along.
Stewart plays Seberg as an innocent, well-meaning yet naïve wisp
Today’s audiences may be unaware of how the fragile Breathless star suffered through her support of liberal causes - including the Black Panther movement – during a deeply troubled time in the United States which has strong parallels to today. That racial element of this 1960s-set story sometimes translates awkwardly to today’s climate and that’s the riskier part of Seberg, but there’s no denying the pathos of the persecution of an actress who was genuinely woke for her time.
Interestingly, after a brief sequence showing Jean being burned at the stake – literally – in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan, Seberg plays out sequentially, without the flashback device so beloved of the Hollywood biopic. Minimal information is given about her formative years. Seberg’s story was hardly standard, anyway: discovered by Preminger at the age of 17 after a nationwide search, she eventually found a career in France where she was cast by Godard opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless.
Set in 1968, when the star is 30, Andrews’ film starts out in Paris where she about to leave her husband Romain (Yvan Attal) and young son behind to take on a role in Paint Your Wagon. On the plane home, she encounters radical black activist and fundraiser Hakim Abdullah Jamal (Anthony Mackie). Sparks fly, politically and personally. Cue the entrance of the FBI COINTELPRO programme, established to destabilise radical organisations, via agents played by Jack O’Connell and Vince Vaughan, for better and for worse. Vaughn will delight in persecuting the fragile Seberg to the point where she is mentally destroyed, while O’Connell (with a wife played by actress-du-jour Margot Qualley) will be appalled by the bureau’s actions and provide the viewer’s access to events.
Stewart plays Seberg as an innocent, well-meaning yet naïve wisp; there are whispers of her Personal Shopper performance here. The actress wafts around her Coldwater Canyon modernist house in a series of skimpy nightdresses, kaftans and uber-cool 60s threads that are clearly of-their-time but a little bit more – cue a ‘thanks to’ Chanel in the credits. It’s all a little clothes-horse-y and fractured as she stares through mirrors and windows and knocks back the scotch. Yet when the going gets tough, Stewart sparks the performance that will set Seberg – which had previously been looking a little thin - alive. This film should play well to Stewart’s fans, of which there are many.
There’s a lot of time here spent talking about the Panthers and black power, and a strong sense of films which still have yet to be made but should have been. As a film about Jean Seberg, Seberg is a success. With all her support for social causes a full half century ago, from the NAACP to Native Americans and the Panthers, though, one wonders what Seberg would have made of this film, now, and the focus still being on her.
Production company: Automatik, Indikate, Totally Commercial Films, Bradley Pilz Production
International sales: Memento Films International
Producers: Fred Berger, Kate Garwood, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Stephen Hopkins, Marina Acton, Alan Ritchson, Bradley Pilz
Screenplay: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse
Cinematography: Rachel Morrison
Production design: Jahmin Assa
Editing: Pamela Martin
Music: Jed Kurzel
Main cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Margaret Qualley, Zazie Beetz, Yvan Attal, Colm Meaney, Anthony Mackie, Vince Vaughn