Venice first look: Seberg, a breathless biopic of a star with a complex life

Kristen Stewart shines as Jean Seberg in this glamorised retelling of her short life, in particular her intrusive surveillance by the US government.

Nick James

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Seberg (2019)

Seberg (2019)

All biopics are to some degree disingenuous. It starts with the mismatch of faces between the subject and the actor portraying them, and goes on with that ways that true-life stories get sliced or bent to the shape of a successful box office experience. That Kristen Stewart looks nothing like Jean Seberg matters, but no more or less than it does in any other biopic. Stewart is a contemporary gamine just as Seberg was seen to be one in her era, and that is thought to be enough – she wears the blonde Seberg crop spectacularly well.

Stewart undoubtedly found an affinity with the horrifically tragic life story of the earlier film actress, who is most famous for a scene that we never see in this film (either re-enacted or played from the original): Seberg as Patricia in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless selling the New York Herald Tribune on the streets of Paris while walking and talking with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s boy gangster, a scene brimming with youthful optimism and grace.

For this not a film that wants to dwell on optimism and grace and neither should it. Seberg’s real biography is a gruelling story of multiple exploitations. Seberg the film rather luxuriates in images of Stewart suffering mental distress while immaculately dressed in 1960s chic, while the cause of her suffering is loaded exclusively onto the US government.

It begins with Jean leaving the Parisian home she shares with her husband Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) while outside the evenements of 1968 rage. In the first class compartment of the plane she encounters Black Panther agitator Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) and decides on landing in the US to pose for photos with the Panther reception party raising her clenched fist. This, a sexual affair with Jamal, and her willingness to contribute money to the cause, soon earns her the surveillance attention of the FBI, one of whom, Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), will act as the film’s conscience as the feds go out of their way to bug Seberg and defame her, thereby driving her into a mental breakdown.

Seberg (2019)

Seberg (2019)

It’s a neat enough pairing of parallel gazer and gazed-upon narratives, with the useful central villainy of the US government and the righteous cause of the unjust war in America between black and white, but this neatness does not do the real Seberg justice. Both Romain Gary and Abdul Malik are portrayed with sympathy here, whereas most accounts say that they both treated Seberg appallingly. The young actress found herself in the clutches of many exploitative men in her career, not least Otto Preminger, who found her at the age of 17 in her hometown of Bloomington, Indiana through a nationwide talent scouting for a young girl to star in his film Saint Joan. We get no sense of how naïve and unworldly Seberg was at that time, but we do get the moment when the burning at the stake goes wrong and she gets scorched.

The problem for director Benedict Andrews (who made the Rooney Mara-starring psychological drama vehicle Una, adapted from a stage play about the longterm consequences of child abuse) and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse is how to give Seberg agency when her life was lived so much at the behest of other people. Other affairs perhaps contributory to her mental breakdown go unmentioned here too, maybe for legal reasons.

What Seberg demonstrates to me is that the full Jean Seberg story is too complex a thing to work in a single feature film. At one point Jack, who has become rather smitten by who he’s been listening to and photographing, watches the ending of Breathless on his own. We see the final shot of Patricia from the viewpoint of the dying Belmondo where she imitates him imitating Humphrey Bogart by rubbing the edge of her thumb across her lips. Belmondo has just called her “dégueulasse”. She asks the cops “qu’est que c’est dégueulasse”. This film has it as “bitch”, the original film’s English subtitles as “louse”. Others just say he means “you’re disgusting”. Male directors liked Seberg for her enigmatic beauty, and then heaped insults on her. Seberg doesn’t do that but it does try to turn her into a different kind of Saint Joan.

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