In Seberg, Kristen Stewart gives a fully-inhabited, body-and-soul performance as a Hollywood casualty pushed beyond the limit. It’s such a stellar turn that she almost redeems this well-meaning but wobbly biopic — which earns points for trying to do her justice. Someone needed to. In playing Jean Seberg, Stewart embodies the question at the core of the film: How does a college girl from Marshalltown, Iowa — who was plucked from obscurity in 1957 to play Joan of Arc in a major motion picture — end up dead in Paris 22 years later, her body found decomposing in her car with a bottle of pills by her side? It wasn’t a failed love affair or the studio system that discovered, exploited, and discarded her that killed Seberg. It was politics. And this impassioned film, directed by Benedict Andrews from a stumbling, overwrought script by Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel, is determined to detail the hows and whys.
All credit to Stewart for portraying Seberg not as a fragile flower, but a tough, thoughtful, vital woman who was brought down by an FBI, headed by J. Edgar Hoover, determined to destroy her for her political beliefs. By 1968, when the film picks up and really commits to her story, Seberg has moved past the trauma of the past decade when critics burned her at the stake for her performance in Saint Joan. Her Svengali director Otto Preminger cast her again in 1958’s Bonjour Tristesse and, though her performance remains a career highlight, the public wasn’t impressed. It was only in 1960 when French firebrand Jean-Luc Godard gave her the role of an American girl in Paris in his New Wave classic Breathless that Seberg — with her pixie cut, black capri pants, and air of inscrutability — won respect as an actress and a fashion icon. Paris also became her home, the place where she settled with her second husband, novelist Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), and their son, Diego.
The film brushes past these details, saving its focus for Seberg’s first contact with the Black Panthers in the person of Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a radical activist she meets in Los Angeles. Her financial contributions to civil-rights causes, her practice of flashing the Black Power salute in public and her affair with the married Jamal create a lightning bolt of controversy that enrages Hollywood and the FBI. Hoover assigns agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) and his partner Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn) to rain down a storm of bad publicity on Seberg that amounts to a public shaming. Her homes are bugged, she is subjected to aggressive wiretaps, and surveillance. Later, when Seberg becomes pregnant by Mexican student Carlos Navarra, the bureau knowingly disseminates the false information that the baby, who died two days after her birth, was black. Her relationships in tatters, her career on the skids, and her depression leading to suicide attempts, Seberg is reduced to a shadow of her former self.
What we see in this film — shot with a keen eye for period details that define character by the great Rachel Morrison (Black Panther) — is nothing less than the feds ordering the systematic destruction of an innocent human being. Why? To neutralize an actress who dared to live her life as she saw fit. And it’s here that Stewart builds her performance to a crescendo of feeling and potent provocation. Even when the film fails to assemble its moments into a coherent whole, Stewart reminds us of Seberg’s once vibrant strength and defiance and stands up for her truth.