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Staking a claim on fame in Seberg

10 January, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Kristen Stewart in Seberg

Directed by Benedict Andrews
Certificate 12a

THE life of Jean Seberg sounds a terrific screenwriter’s pitch. The actress, a household name in the 60s and 70s, lived a fairy tale – and one that did not end happily ever after.

Born in Iowa in 1938, she was a child of Hollywood’s golden era, a generation who subscribed to the dreams movies sold.

And for Jean those dreams came true: in 1957, she became the original X Factor winner. After being picked for the role in an 18,000-strong talent contest, she made her film debut in Saint Joan, an adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play.

Her performance was harshly judged, but director Otto Preminger gave her another chance in the French movie Bonjour Tristesse.

While you won’t learn any of this fascinating back story through the film bearing her name, she then starred in Jean Luc Goddard’s 1960 New Wave debut Breathless, and became the darling of French cinema.

We meet Jean (Kristen Stewart) as she is boarding a plane to Los Angeles. It is 1968, and we gather she is an American actress who has married a bearded Gallic intellectual type. Why she is living in Paris in 1968 as students take the streets is left for you to guess.

A shame – some scene-setting could have explained that the city was a haven for those on McCarthy’s black lists, and that the French appreciated black American jazz musicians, meaning the likes of Sidney Bechet, fed up with Jim Crow America, could earn a hassle-free living.

In the 60s Vietnam refuseniks came to Europe following in the footsteps of Gellhorn, Hemingway, Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald and others. Jean therefore would be in a politically charged environment.

This culture warrants a vague nod as we learn she is flying back to Hollywood to audition for a role she doesn’t want – a western musical (Paint Your Wagon, which Seberg made with Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood).

Her disenchantment is clear (“A western musical? Meh…”), and it becomes more tangible while airborne when she meets black power activist Hakim Jamel (Anthony Mackie).

The attraction is immediate and Jean offers support, bringing her to the attention of FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell).

He spies on her and dirty tricks are planned.

How the FBI behaved and the effect it had on Jean is at the film’s heart.

Seberg’s life stands on its own without the need for a male co-lead to act as a moral barometer. Jack’s plot line is an unsavoury flaw if you do a quick web search about what the FBI did to Jean and the ramifications their despicable behaviour had. It feels like a botched attempt to mimic Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy – authors soaked in a thoroughly patriarchal vision of Los Angeles.

Seberg’s life works as a pitch, but this feels incomplete and occasionally disrespectful. There is more to her than a confused A-list actress swanning about in next to nothing while behaving gullibly, and the FBI do not deserve redemption.

It’s not a bad film if you pretend Jean wasn’t a real person – the cast are good and it rolls along.

But she was, and it is hard not to wonder if her memory is being treated with the dignity it deserves.

No doubt Jean would simply shrug and say: “That’s Hollywood.”


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