Seberg review: Kristen Stewart’s shining performance deserves a much better film

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Seberg tells the story of Jean Seberg, a cinematic icon and a woman who supported a number of political causes during the 1960s, which brought her to the attention of the FBI. 

Kristen Stewart has that certain something. A spark,that makes her watchable in just about anything, whether she’s staring longingly from the lunchroom at a pale handsome stranger, or kicking butts alongside her two friends. Thank goodness, then, for Stewart’s presence in new film Seberg, because it’s one of the biopic’s very few, if not only, redeeming qualities.

First, some context. American actor Jean Seberg was best known for her role in Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless, which immortalised her as an icon of French New Wave cinema. Off screen, though, she is remembered for being one of the most famous targets of the FBI’s counter-intelligence operation because of her support of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. 

In 1970, the FBI created a false story that the child Seberg was carrying was not her husband’s, but that of Raymond Hewitt, a Black Panther Party activist. Seberg died aged just 40, with police ruling that she probably died by suicide; her husband, in a press conference, blamed the FBI’s campaign for deteriorating her mental health.

Seberg’s tragic and tumultuous life has long been a source of fascination for cinephiles. So why, then, is this Hollywood icon not the focus of her own biopic? Indeed, I’d even go so far as to say that Seberg – which sees Stewart take on the eponymous character – says far too little of any meaning about the actor to truly earn that genre tag.

The film opens in 1968 Paris, as Seberg prepares to leave for Hollywood for work. On the flight, she meets Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), and finds herself instantly drawn to him.

Embarking on an affair with him, and captivated by the Black Panther Party’s message, it’s not long before Seberg begins hosting fundraisers for the Black Panthers in her home… and writing checks to them, too. And it is this which brings her to the attention of the FBI, who quickly move to mount a surveillance operation on her.

The film would be interesting if it concentrated on Seberg, her relationship with Hakim – it’s his stillness and composure that makes Mackie so good in this role – and how the FBI’s pursuit affected Seberg. Sadly, we simply don’t spend anywhere near enough time time with her. 

When the film does deign to focus on Seberg, it doesn’t give Stewart enough to work with. And, while the Charlie’s Angels star does her best with the lacklustre and cliched material, we simply don’t see enough of Seberg to really understand her as a woman.

Not only is Stewart utterly sidelined, but this decision to make Seberg a bit-player in her own life story is to the detriment of the viewer’s opinion of the actor as an ally, too. This film’s version of Seberg seemingly supports the Black Panthers for selfish reasons, to add some excitement in her life. An exploration of Seberg’s political chops (as well as the Black Panthers, she also provided financial support to the NAACP and Native American school groups) would have given her a depth that we just don’t see.

If Seberg isn’t the focus of this story, then, who is? Well, the film becomes a story about a white man instead: fictional FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell). Handsome and talented, Jack and his colleague Carl (Vince Vaughn) drive the surveillance against Seberg with no concern over whether what they’re doing is ethical. Carl, and other FBI agents (including one who kills Seberg’s dog during surveillance) are bullies, but Jack is framed as a hero. Sure, he does bad things, but he’s doing them in pursuit of justice, and once he realises his idea of justice is different to (and better than) his colleagues, he’s set on a redemptive arc, one which there was no need for.

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It’s galling and disappointing to see a story about a woman ignore that woman in favour of creating a bland story that centres a man. What it is, though, is predictable; Hollywood loves a redemptive white man narrative above all others. 

“I believe the truth will one day will be revealed,” says Stewart’s Seberg in a teary moment towards the end of the film.

It will be, just not by this film.

Seberg is out on 10 January.

Images: Amazon Studios

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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.

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