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Culture » Film Reviews

What's In a Name?

Seberg is at its best when it's not just about the famous actress in its title.


  • Amazon Films

A movie's title is no small thing; one only need to look at Warner Bros.' desperate second-week rebranding of Birds of Prey as Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey for a reminder that you're selling your audience on what they should expect. Sometimes, however, a misjudged title isn't simply an indication that the distributor doesn't know what their audience wants. It could be an indication that the filmmakers themselves might not be entirely sure what their movie is about.

The point here isn't to critique Seberg for not being a cradle-to-grave biopic about its title subject, actress Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart). Recent film history is littered with such predictable narratives, most of which have little more to say than "this person was famous, but had a rough life." Seberg did have a rough life, but the specific manner in which it was rough lends itself to some potentially intriguing explorations of a particular moment in American history—and understanding that moment might have meant even less of a focus on the famous person whose name is in the title.

That moment in question is 1968-71, a period where Seberg—an icon of the French New Wave of the 1960s after Breathless—was doing more film work in American movies. In Los Angeles she meets Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a black activist whose principles align with Seberg's desire to get more political. Her willingness to provide financial support to Jamal's causes and to the Black Panthers evolves into an affair, which in turn leads to making Seberg part of FBI investigations targeting "subversive" organizations.

Director Benedict Andrews doesn't pull back on the idea of making this a story about Seberg as martyr, opening up with a shot of Stewart as Seberg burning at the stake in her breakthrough role as Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger's Saint Joan. Early scenes emphasize Seberg's loneliness and isolation as her marriage to Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) falls apart, making for an effective transition to Seberg's growing paranoia as it becomes clear someone is watching and listening to her every move. Stewart's unique blend of flintiness and emotional fragility works well for that evolution, yet the screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (Race) never provides the foundation for Seberg's political consciousness. The fact that she's willing to risk everything—her career, her mental health, her family—for her principles is simply taken for granted, leaving a hole in the central character.

As it turns out, there's a lot more potentially provocative material in Seberg's secondary plot, focusing on an FBI agent named Jack Solomon (Jack O'Connell) who is assigned the surveillance of Seberg. Solomon grows increasingly uneasy with the tactics used by the Bureau, but it's not really the development of his character's conscience that's interesting. Instead, it's a look at the American "normalcy" of the civil rights/Vietnam era that the FBI's actions are supposed to be defending, and how indefensible that normalcy is at its core. We see Solomon's wife Linette (Margaret Qualley), a medical student, at an awkward backyard barbecue gathering of FBI families, as the other wives seem dismissive of her own career aspirations. Later, the Solomons have dinner with Jack's FBI partner Carl (Vince Vaughn, making perfect use of his loudmouth swagger) and his family, which turns into an ugly exposure of Carl's feelings about his hippie son, and the wife and daughter who dare to contradict him.

That's terrific stuff foregrounding the era's conservative backlash against social movements that were challenging the existing power structure, a counteroffensive in which Jean Seberg simply becomes collateral damage. And it's not that Seberg, and Stewart's performance, don't make Seberg's disintegration emotionally affecting. The focus on a single victim of the U.S. government's war on progressivism gives this story a more personal, more individual potency, but it always feels like the real story here is those who waged that war, and why they told themselves it was worth fighting. For all the screen time spent on Seberg—because, after all, it's her name at the beginning of the movie—there's another story that keeps letting you know it might belong at center stage.