Thursday, May 28, 2020

Movie Review: Seberg

Seberg ** / *****
Directed by: Benedict Andrews.
Written by: Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse.
Starring: Kristen Stewart (Jean Seberg), Jack O'Connell (Jack Solomon), Anthony Mackie (Hakim Jamal), Margaret Qualley (Linette Solomon), Colm Meaney (Frank Ellroy), Zazie Beetz (Dorothy Jamal), Vince Vaughn (Carl Kowalski), Yvan Attal (Romain Gary), Gabriel Sky (Diego Gary), Stephen Root (Walt Breckman).
Both Jean Seberg, the talented, tragic actress, and Kristen Stewart, the talented actress playing her, deserved better than Seberg – a tired biopic that ends up treating Seberg as a cipher in her own life. The life begins with Seberg on the set of Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan – where the fire set to burn her character at the stake, gets out of control, and ends up burning Seberg herself. The film uses it as a metaphor throughout the film – but it also stands out as being the only scene of its kind in the movie – the only one that shows Seberg acting, her desire to act, to express herself in that way. The film will barely bring up the rest of her career – there is a passing reference to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, which made her immortal, and a lot of potshots at Paint Your Wagon, but you would be forgiven if you didn’t know Seberg’s career for thinking that she was 1960s version of those women who are famous for being famous – instead of a talented actress, with ambitions all her own.
To be fair, the film isn’t really about Seberg’s career – but about her political activism. It’s the late 1960s, and she is leaving her husband and son behind in France to travel to L.A. to audition for Paint Your Wagon – where she meets Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) – a leader in the Black Power movement, complaining to the stewardess about the treat the widow of Malcolm X is receiving in coach. This sets something off in Seberg – who offers to give up her own first-class speech, and poses for a picture doing the Black Power salute with Jamal and others when the plane touches down in L.A. It isn’t long before she’s travelling to Jamal’s home in Compton, apparently wanting to get involved in the movement – to have an affair with him.
This, in itself, isn’t a bad decision for the movie. Seberg’s involvement could have been fertile ground to make a movie – about whether she’s genuine, or she’s basically a tourist in the group, etc. But the movie quickly abandons that – and makes the odd decision to focus on Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), the young FBI agent, who along with his partner Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn) are assigned to monitor Seberg – and end up following her, tapping her phones, and basically gaslighting her, for years. Solomon, of course, falls for Seberg at this remove – and through that comes to believe what he is doing is wrong.
It’s probably the least interesting choice the movie could make – and ends up wasting an incredibly talented cast. Stewart isn’t given much to play – she slips into (justified) paranoia as the film moves along, but it’s basically one scene after another like Gene Hackman at the end of The Conversation – but without the conviction. O’Connell is a talented actor as well, but he cannot sell his transition for square fed, into sympathetic person – and it feels particularly hollow, since he isn’t convinced, he shouldn’t be screwing with oppressed minorities, as much as he falls for a beautiful woman. The film completely wastes the talents of Margarete Qualley – as Solomon’s wife, slowly realizing what is happening, and Zazie Beetz, as Jamal’s wife, who goes full psycho pretty rapidly. It gives Mackie, not the most expressive performer to begin with, wooden dialogue he cannot deliver. Strangely, Vaughn coms across best of any of them – he is a one note, square jawed, conservative Fed – but he appears to genuinely be one.
In the end, Seberg just isn’t all that interesting. It doesn’t really figure out its central character, nor does it really figure out what its trying to saying about the time and place she inhabits. It’s got a goldmine of a subject matter, and comes up with perhaps the least interesting approach to it.

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