A relatively recent and generally noticeable phenomenon is that, at the time of cinematographic biographies, it is more and more common to focus on a specific situation or a stage in the life of the sitter and not so much is attempted – as used to happen before – encompass everything. There are dozens of recent examples of this type of biographies. Y WATCHING JEAN SEBERGstarring Kristen Stewart, is one of them.
By choosing to focus on the persecution, by the FBI, that the actress of BREATHLESS suffered, starting in 1968, when she decided to collaborate with several causes linked to the so-called “black pride” (Black Panthers, among others), the film focuses on a fact that was fundamental in the career of the interpreter and the one that determined, surely, how little he worked and how much he suffered from then on. But the problem with this approach is that not only is it not deep or intelligent enough, but it also does not bring us too close to the figure of an actress whose career, with a couple of exceptions, is not as well known.
Perhaps what is misleading is the original title, which is simply SEBERGsince it suggests that one will see a movie about the girl whose image (bah, her haircut) became iconic thanks to movies like BONJOUR TRISTESSE and the famous film by Jean-Luc Godard. But, beyond a few brief references to her filmic past, the actress could have been basically anyone. She functions almost as a default role: somewhat innocent celebrity supporting a noble and at the time dangerous cause without knowing that she is getting herself into some really serious trouble. There is not much of Jean Seberg in SEBERG: it is an image, an idea, a symbol. We end the film knowing her as little as we did at the beginning.
A fact of Seberg’s life, yes, it is used by Andrews (A) in a metaphorical way, if you will. The then-teenage actress’s first film role was in SAINT JOHN, by Otto Preminger, where she played Joan of Arc. There she is shown in the scene of the bonfire that left real consequences on the actress’s body (the fire got out of hand and scars were left on her torso) but the objective of showing her clearly has to do with raising the idea of the ordeal that the girl will have to live throughout the story that is told in the film.
The events narrated here start in 1968 (let’s say that the bulk of his career is barely mentioned in passing, including the aforementioned BONJOUR TRISTESSE Y BREATHLESSbut also lilith Y SUBLIME MADNESS, among others) when Seberg travels from his home in Paris back to California for a casting and runs into, in an awkward situation on the plane, with Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a militant for African-American rights who, although he is estranged from the Black Panthers, he is part of the same movement. She helps him out of that moment (supposedly they don’t want to let him into first class, despite having paid for that ticket) and, as he steps off the plane, he joins the man and others in the classic Black Power salute.
But Jamal is being investigated and spied on by the FBI. And with Seberg on the map, the Hoover boys see it as important to follow her to publicize the fight against these “undesirable elements.” On top of that, the girl –whose husband and son are in France– has no better idea than to have an affair with the man, which already leaves them with public ridicule. In the task of persecuting her are two agents: the most veteran and tough Carl (Vince Vaughn) and the most rookie Jack (Jack O’Connell), who does not seem so convinced to mess with her private life.
But the FBI lowers the line and they must follow it. SEBERG It will focus on several relationships and perhaps the main one is between the two of them, even if they see each other very rarely. She will feel more and more persecuted (and it will not be, at least at first, a hallucination or exaggeration) and he will feel more guilty. Soon Seberg begins to receive threats, notes about her come out discrediting her, she loses jobs and, little by little, she begins to drink more and more and have some suicide attempt. And, in parallel, her relationship with Hakim is complicated once his wife (played by Zazie Beetz) finds out that the actress’s collaboration with the cause is not just about opening her generous checkbook.
the problem with WATCHING JEAN SEBERG It doesn’t just have to do with the little information it gives us or the almost zero profile it makes of the actress prior to these events (something that could even be understandable) but it also doesn’t manage to narrate the chosen stage well. The appearance of important names in very minor roles makes it clear that many things must have been left out in the montage, since the film does not explore too well the well-known intersection between Hollywood, the FBI and the revolutionary movements of the time.
In favor of the film, it must be said that Stewart manages to get along very well with Seberg, especially considering that her style, always somewhat distant and mysterious, is quite similar to the public references that one has of the actress. And her look is perfectly captured, as is the fear and paranoia that slowly consume her. In that sense, she gives the impression that the script is not up to her work.
The film does have a period reconstruction (one similar, say, to the one in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD) very well managed, in every detail. And one theme that the script does explore intelligently –perhaps the only one– is the innocence of certain celebrities when it comes to making their political commitments public. In the relationship that he establishes with the Afro-American militants, it is clear that, without realizing it, his participation in the struggle is almost touristic, supporting causes without really having an idea of the real suffering in the daily life of the people that generated these movements.
Finally – and for other reasons that have nothing to do with racism – Seberg will end up feeling the weight of the law on her. On her sanity and on her personal life, with results that will be tragic. The film does not manage to convey very well what her life was like, but it understands a little better how her death began.