Director: Benedict Andrews
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Margaret Qualley, Zazie Beetz, Vince Vaughn, Anthony Mackie
Rights owned by: Amazon Studios
With Netflix, Amazon and HBO out in force at the Venice Film Festival 2019, we head over to the Lido to catch up with their latest offerings and review some of the other films making their debuts.
The year is 1957. Joan of Arc is being burned at the stake for what she believes. And, in real life, Jean Seberg on that movie’s set is also being burnt by director Otto Preminger, making for an auspicious, scarring screen debut – an experience that reminds us immediately that the world remains a man’s one, with women considered collateral damage along the way. It’s no wonder, then, that Kristen Stewart, one of the most talented and interesting actors of modern cinema, should choose to play Seberg in a biopic that follows Jean’s own principled stand – in support of civil rights. While Stewart is excellent, though, the film never quite lives up to her performance.
Flying to America in the 1960s, the French New Wave star meets Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), an activist connected to the Black Panthers. A shared salute in solidarity on the runway later, and Jean finds herself going to his place for a discussion of how she can make a difference – along with other, more intimate interactions. That, however, puts her on the radar of the FBI’s surveillance team – specifically, agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), who is tasked with capturing her every move with the aim of gathering information and ultimately discrediting the Black Power movement.
It’s a plot that’s right out of a movie, so it’s easy to see why writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse chose to turn the events into a screenplay. But with so many players in this complex game of cat and mouse, the result suffers from not choosing to focus on one specific person or thing: there’s sinister intrigue in the Bureau’s actions, including the domestic dynamics that surround Jack’s colleague, Carl (played with stern conservative morals by Vince Vaughn); there’s a moving turn by Zazie Beetz (soon to be seen in Joker) as Dorothy, the wife of Hakim, who finds in Seberg’s glamorous do-gooder an unwelcome threat; and there’s suspense in Jean’s growing paranoia about being watched, which puts a strain on her marriage with fellow creative Romain Gary (Yvan Attal).
Amid all that, Jean Seberg is, somewhat ironically, slightly lost on screen; like the voyeuristic relationship at the film’s core, she’s a somewhat distant figure to be gazed upon. With the script dropping more than the occasional clunky line of dialogue to try and cram all of these characters and plotting into a conventional two-hour thriller, it’s no coincidence that the best moments of Seberg are when Kristen Stewart steals a moment for herself, often in silence; after years of playing introverted characters with a knack for conveying inner conflict, it’s a treat to see Stewart fuse that intensity with old-fashioned movie stardom, shining with a charisma that matches Jean’s sun-yellow dresses and beach-blonde hair.
DoP Rachel Morrison (Mudbound, Black Panther) works with Andrews to recreate the period with a gorgeous sense of colour – even in the opening recreation of Preminger’s Joan of Arc. But Seberg is lacking the same substance its leading lady evidently possesses in spades. The film tellingly never works out the best place to conclude its story (a wayward prologue involving Jack and Jean should be a thoughtful climax but doesn’t provide any closure); despite its authenticity, and Kristen Stewart’s convincing performance, for a film about someone sticking up for their beliefs, Seberg is slightly lacking in staying power.
Seberg is an Amazon Studios production with no UK distributor currently in place for a theatrical release.