What could have been an involving drama surrounding a troubled New Wave U.S. actress just doesn’t have the verve of its subject or the subtle probity of what brought on her demise of an apparent suicide at 40.
Seberg stars Kristen Stewart (Underwater, Personal Shopper), Anthony Mackle, Vince Vaughn and Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) in what unfolds like more of a languid thriller for what is mostly an uninspired, truncated biopic.
Jean Seberg was a bilingual actress best known for her French role in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless in 1960 and was terribly burned on the set of the earlier Saint Joan in filling the eponymous role. The “playing with fire” adage apparently applied to a woman excelling in her profession, but turned her attention to political activism by the time she was making films like Paint Your Wagon.
The narrative alludes to an instability that would rear its ugly head later after surveillance and defamation once the married woman warmed up to Malcolm X’s cousin Hakim Jamal (Mackie of The Hurt Locker). The affair didn’t sit well with Jamal’s missus (Zazie Beetz) nor the F.B.I. who put her in their COINTELPRO program on dissidents. Especially after witnessing a fist in praise of the Black Panthers (Seberg actually was part of the N.A.A.C.P. not mentioned here).
Under Director J. Edgar Hoover are fictionalized agents out of the Los Angeles office — Vaughn has a curt, nasty demeanor. And, O’Connell, as his partner, finds his conscience in turmoil to some degree in the handling of Jean. Though he’s unable to stop what will become increasingly detrimental to her well-being.
With a theater resume director Benedict Andrews has his choice millennial actress who engages the role with ardor to provide noticeable shading. But, really it’s to little avail in the shifting between a tormented woman and the government agency where the nature of the stalking may remind discerning cineastes of The Lives of Others (worth seeking out) with its compromised Stasi professional.
The filmmaking is’t able to steer Seberg towards greatness in muting the arc of Stewart who has intrigued (like Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson) in modestly scaled productions. This one displays style from costumes to lush interiors but unhappily isn’t matched by substance running counter to where encroachment actually led.