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Film Review: Seberg (2019)

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

With her trademark cropped her, fragile beauty and involvement with subversive political groups, Jean Seberg was not exactly your average Hollywood starlet. French-speaking Seberg had been plucked from obscurity to star as Joan of Arc, a trailblazer of the New French Wave that took cinema by storm in the 1960s. Success might have been hers, but this waiflike creature was a restless soul. In fact, Seberg was the Queen of Woke long before Hollywood got in on the act.

Take a modern-day Hollywood icon in Kristen Stewart portraying Seberg’s beauty and fragility, a plot which takes in FBI machinations and the heroines’ flirtations with the Black Panthers and the Benedict Andrews-directed Seberg should have all the ingredients to make it a sure-fire winner. And yet . . .

Rightly or wrongly, the film focuses on the years 1968-1971, a time in her life when the actress met the black civil rights leader Hakim Jamal with whom she enjoyed a passionate affair. It wasn’t the fact that both partners were married (Seberg to French novelist Romain Gary) that disturbed the powers-that-be, but rather the inter-racial aspect of the relationship. In 1960s America a hi-profile white woman having an affair with a black political activist alerted some very powerful forces including J Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

From this point on Seberg’s every move is monitored by men wearing horn-rimmed glasses and white shirts. The actress is playing with fire i.e. radical black political movements. And the FBI doesn’t like it. The film then delves into the domestic issues the relationship causes. While Hakim’s wife arrives at Seberg’s mansion with a shotgun one night, her husband by contrast is apparently unruffled. Seemingly the couple enjoy ‘un mariage ouvert.’

Actually, following his wife’s affair with Clint Eastwood, Monsieur Gary challenged the actor to a dual, which Eastwood declined. Presumably, he was a mite more jealous of his wife’s infidelities than portrayed in the film.

Stewart portrays Seberg’s neurotic side rather well and what with surveillance vans and illicit meetings with Jamal and friends Seberg looks promising. So far so good. But then something odd happens. Instead of following the impressionable actress and her worldly-wise lover the film focuses on the FBI agents shadowing her. One of these guys has a conscience, the other not. Jack Solomon (Jack O’ Connell) becomes increasingly uneasy with the state’s intrusion into Seberg’s life – breaking into her villa, tapping her phones etc. It’s a crisis of conscience shared by his wife. Meanwhile his partner Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughan) has no such qualms. He’s meaner and nastier. He kicks chihuahuas to death.

And so, the film starts to lose its direction. Is this a movie about Seberg’s relationship with a black power figure or is it about state intimidation and one man’s growing dissatisfaction with the role he is compelled to play in it? I’m not sure anybody knows.

As Seberg becomes ever more paranoid – suicidal even – Monsieur Gary responds by way of Gallic shrugs – which I guess provides some justification for her affair with Jamal. Hell, at least he’s human! However, halfway through the film Jamal ends the affair and disappears and with him my reason for watching the film in the first place. (Jamal was the lover of British socialite Gale Benson brutally murdered by associates of Jamal in 1972, a subject I have written about before here: Make Believe and here: The Bank Job).

What we are left with is Jack Solomon’s angst. The film concludes with a bizarre scene in which Solomon bumps into Seberg in a hotel lobby, seeks and is granted absolution by the actress for the part he has played in the FBI operation. Solomon walks off into the sunset a changed man. Seberg meanwhile sits alone at the bar, her life in ruins (or so we assume) thanks to the FBI smears.

Seberg is fine as far as it goes, but one can’t help but feel its writer and director missed the most intriguing part of the actresses’ colourful life i.e. her supposed 1979 suicide which may or may not have been linked to those same FBI machinations. Certainly, the actress remained a fierce political activist and had been involved with a much younger North African at the time of her mysterious death. For my money it’s this part of her life that would have made a much more dramatic and controversial film.

As such the film ends with a whimper not a bang. It rather skirts the issues: inter-racial relations, black power movements, government surveillance and not least the promiscuous and neurotic woman who was Jean Seberg. Let's just say that of the dozens and dozens of questions I have about this fascinating actress, not one of them includes the FBI spooks sent to spy on her.

Indeed, there was a lot, lot more that could have been achieved with a film dedicated to the life of Jean Seberg and the final impression I’m sad to report must therefore be one of missed opportunities.