An exposé of FBI methods is side-tracked by an unfocussed portrayal of the actress who was their victim.


Kristen est Jean


What we have here is an indictment of the actions of the FBI in cases where political issues lead not only to intense surveillance but to deliberate character assassination. That might be a valid theme in various eras but it fits all too well into the late 1960s and early 1970s when the Black Panthers were viewed as a threat to be countered by any methods available. In order to illustrate this, the writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse have, as the film’s title makes clear, opted to put at its centre the actress Jean Seberg, thus making this the story of the fate that befell her.


Their decision is one that immediately creates problems. Some audiences fondly aware of how Seberg achieved iconic status through her role in Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless) (1960), will expect a film with this title to be a full biopic. Instead, it’s a work which concentrates on the period between 1968 (when she made financial donations in support of the Black Panthers) and 1971 when the pressure on her led to attempted suicide. But limiting the film’s scope in this way still leaves Seberg herself (Kristen Stewart) as the chief focus and the screenplay never really gets to grips with her character. Her awareness of civil rights issues and of social injustice in America may genuinely have led her to espouse the cause of the Black Panther Party but, if that suggests a person by no means superficial in her thinking, her sexual involvement with one of the Panthers, Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), shows her oblivious of any tensions that that might create in his marriage. Similarly, her behaviour threatens her own marriage to the French novelist Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), the father of her young son. In point of fact, I am told that neither man treated Seberg well, but here Mackie is allowed to make Jamal very sympathetic while the portrayal of Gary reduces him to a cypher.


In this instance the usual closing declaration found in films based on fact is wider than normal since it acknowledges that much of the detail has been invented. It is certainly all too easy to believe that the two FBI agents featured are fictional stereotypes rather than real individuals: they have been created so that one of them, Carl (Vince Vaughn), can be shown as an out-and-out villain while the other, Jack (Jack O’Connell), can be depicted as developing a conscience over what he is being ordered to do - indeed for extra dramatic weight the film even suggests that Jack, despite being a married man, might be falling for Seberg himself! Scenes such as the one in which Jack, having been sent to place a bug in Seberg’s apartment, is interrupted by her sudden return and is nearly found hiding in the shower plays like some fictional contrivance.


Seberg may have had an individuality that Stewart can’t really capture, but she is never less than watchable. The real failure here is not that of the actress but of the writers for failing to get to the essence of Seberg. It is typical that when, late on, she has a baby the film never clarifies who the father was and at the close being truthful to the facts means that a written statement about her death in 1979 can only declare that it might or might not have been suicide. All of this adds to the sense of the story feeling incomplete. In line with the title Seberg is indeed at the centre of this movie, but as a portrait of her private life the film leaves her as something of an enigma.  However, for her admirers that may not be altogether a bad thing - after all they’ll always have Paris.




Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack O'Connell, Margaret Qualley, Zazie Beetz, Yvan Attal, Stephen Root, Colm Meaney, Vince Vaughn, Anthony Mackie, Jade Pettyjohn, James Jordan, Grantham Coleman, Laura Campbell, Gabriel Sky.


Dir Benedict Andrews, Pro Marina Acton, Fred Berger, Kate Garwood, Stephen Hopkins, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Bradley Pilz and Alan Ritchson, Screenplay Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel, Ph Rachel Morison, Pro Des Jahmin Assa, Ed Pamela Martin, Music Jed Kurzel, Costumes Michael Wilkinson, Dialect coach Susan Hegarty.


Ingenious Media/Automatik/Bradley Pilz Productions/Totally Commercial Films-Universal Pictures.
102 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 10 January 2020. Cert. 15.