The story of Jean Seberg is perhaps one of Hollywood’s most tragic, and not often told stories. The American born actress who became the face of French New Wave cinema thanks to her role in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film Breathless, later became one of the targets of the FBI’s controversial COINTELPRO projects due to her political involvements.
Particularly around award season, Hollywood loves films about itself, as Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s across the board success would suggest. In fact, there is a shared ideal between Seberg and Quentin Tarantino’s film, as both – with varying degrees of success – seek some form of redemptive arc for their female protagonist.
Where Once Upon a Time creates an almost entirely fictional narrative around the real-life figure of Sharon Tate, Seberg plays like more of a straight biopic, which sadly goes to the film’s detriment. Somewhere within Seberg, there is a much more interesting story, but the film feels so pedestrian at times that it fails to eke out what is already there.
The film makes a bold assumption that everyone is already very familiar with Jean Seberg and therefore wastes little time in providing any kind of context about her career or her political beliefs; something which immediately places the film on slightly uneven footing. I have to confess, prior to seeing this film I did not know much about Jean Seberg at all, beyond the iconic pixie cut on the Breathless posters, and this film doesn’t really take much time in getting to know her.
Where the film is at is strongest is in Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Jean Seberg. Whilst the script is a little clunky and exposition-heavy in places, Stewart does an excellent job of displaying Seberg’s vulnerabilities and defiance. As the intrusive and unethical surveillance campaign against her begins to take its toll, Stewart really shines, the pain and anguish being particularly evident as she begins to self-destruct.
Whilst the film attempts to have a moral compass with the Jack O’Connell character, the villains of the piece – the FBI – are otherwise entirely one-dimensional. Their campaign against Jean seems to make little sense given that we are not provided with enough of the political context at the time, and whilst this does help to align our sympathies with her, it provides inadequate framing given that this is a mostly true story.
On the whole, Seberg is a bit of a mixed bag, and whilst the central performance is great, you cannot help but feel it is being held back by the constraints of the film. You’re willing the film to delve deeper, to go darker, or to do something a little unexpected or different, but instead, it plays things far too safe, ultimately doing a disservice to this inherently interesting story.
PS: I know this matters to a lot of people, so do read this (spoiler warning) if ‘Pooch Peril’ is something that affects you in films, like it does me.
Directed by: Benedict Andrews
Written by: Anna Waterhouse, Joe Shrapnel
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Yvan Attal, Gabriel Sky