M, 103 minutes
Capitol Cinemas Manuka, Dendy Canberra, Palace Electric Cinema
Review by © Jane Freebury
In the French film that made Jean Seberg famous, she was an exchange student in Paris having a languid affair with a petty crook she eventually betrayed. Scenes of her in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, strolling along the Champs Elysees while touting the New York Herald Tribune, have etched themselves into our collective cinema memory.
In Godard’s iconic New Wave film, Seberg sporting the striped Breton t-shirt and a short pixie haircut was all light and air and mischief. A different take, but a take nonetheless on the luxuriant femme fatale. Were it not for Audrey Hepburn, she might have been the original alluring gamine on screen.
Kristen Stewart, a very talented and versatile actress, is an inspired choice for the role of Jean Seberg. She has also had something of a trans-Atlantic career, with roles in French films too.
In this new film from Australian director Benedict Andrews (who directed Una with Ben Mendelsohn and Rooney Mara), Stewart looks quite a lot like Seberg. Though she brings more steel to the role than you would suspect the late American actress had.
makes the FBI look far better than they could possibly deserve
After a disturbing start, a flashback of Seberg at the stake in Saint Joan, her ill-fated first film, events kick off in Paris during the foment of student unrest that was 1968. The actress is saying goodbye to her husband, French author and former diplomat Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), and young son to fly to America and take up her role in Paint Your Wagon. She was to star opposite Clint Eastwood, but that’s another story.
Screenwriters Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel have made FBI surveillance rather than Seberg’s career the focus of this story. Seberg was identified as a high-profile subversive by the FBI when she became associated with Black Power groups in the late 1960s-70s.
It would have been difficult to ignore the salute she gave in support of black activists at the airport after she flew in from Paris. She was never one to try to conceal anything.
She had met activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) on the plane and there was an instant connection, though he was married too. Soon she was giving donations to the Black Panthers and to childcare centres for African-American children and holding civil rights fundraisers at her mansion in Coldwater Canyon. This girl from the Midwest yearned to make a difference.
Waterhouse and Shrapnel created a fictional character whose story runs in parallel with Seberg. Young FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), whose wife (Margaret Qualley) is pursuing her own career as a doctor, starts out gung-ho but becomes conflicted about his role. It makes the FBI look far better than they could possibly deserve.
Under orders from the top, Solomon and his colleagues begin to surveil and discredit their high-profile target. Her phone is tapped, her home bugged and in particular her bedroom. When officers hear she is pregnant from an affair they try to besmirch and discredit her by leaking the news to gossip columns. The illegal actions of the FBI were shocking, and creating a fictional character like Solomon, the human face of the FBI, affords the organisation a kind of rehabilitation.
The goons at J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, including Vince Vaughn as a particularly hard case, are completely out of step with the progressive forces of the times. They even go to a family barbeque in shirt and tie.
a lost opportunity that doesn’t do the Jean Seberg story justice
Their tactics played a big part in Seberg’s mental decline. Shortly after she died in 1979 – the French authorities said it was ‘probably’ suicide – the FBI acknowledged it had had a role in destroying her reputation. It also announced that some of its activities targeting Seberg were illegal and that it no longer conducted them.
A brief clip simulated from Breathless makes an appearance. It’s where Patricia looks straight to camera and runs her thumb around her mouth, the way her lover (Jean Paul Belmondo) used to do. It’s a clip that doesn’t make any particular point in a film that doesn’t show much interest in what really made Seberg famous.
Although Stewart’s performance is typically edgy and intelligent, this film is a lost opportunity that doesn’t do the Jean Seberg story justice, and treats her career as a footnote. The full, fascinating story of the poster girl of the French New Wave is still to be told.
First published in the Canberra Times on 2 February 2020
*Featured image: courtesy 2019 Amazon Studios