A blonde woman is chained to a pole. As the sounds of a mob grow louder, flames start to burn below her. Cut to: opening credits. We later learn that Jean Seberg experienced a version of this scene in her breakthrough film, playing Joan of Arc for Otto Preminger. Bad preparatin of the fire left her with permanent scars on her midriff.
Cut to: Paris, May 1968. Seberg has been a star in France for 8 years, since playing the US-American newspaper seller in Breathless. She’s about to try to break Hollywood. Her husband, who is noticeably elder then her, will be staying in Paris with their child. With students rioting in the Sorbonne, things are looking much more interesting where he is.
On the plane to Los Angeles, Seberg is sitting in first class with her agent, when a black man bursts through. He is Hakim Abdullah Jamal. Previous scenes have already shown us that he has attracted the interest of the FBI. He is accompanying Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz, and demands that the stewardess provide a seat fit for a queen.
Seberg offers Jamal and Shabazz her seat. Once on the tarmac, she joins a group of Panthers in a Black Power salute. The FBI agents watch on. We hear them discuss how Jamal isn’t with the Panthers himself, but he is an independent operator with some weight who is trying to bring the bickering black revolutionary factions to work with each other.
That is not a bad opening 5 minutes. As the film proceeds, Seberg visits and donates money to various black revolutionary organisations. With each action she rises higher on the list of people the FBI want to destabilise. They bug her room and play a recording of her sleeping with Jamal to his wife. They then distribute frankly racist cartoons of Jamal and Seberg in his kids’ playground.
There is so much history in this film, and so much of today. In 50+ year old footage, Eldridge Cleaver warns police that if they don’t stop violently policing black communities, the community will drive them out – if necessary with armed force. This speech could have been taken from any number of recent Black Lives Matters demonstrations.
Seberg believes more in love and peace than in violence, but most of all she wants to help right a clear injustice. She is not accepted by all her potential allies – Jamal’s wife dimisses her as a “tourist” – but this doesn’t stop the FBI applying the screws. They bug her, lie about her to gossip columnists, and once, by mistake, they kill her pet dog. She starts to crack up.
We see the FBI mainly through the eyes of Jack, who joined the agency out of patriotism but is starting to believe that they are starting to go too far. No-one else seems to be too bothered by the dog incident, and J Edgar Hoover is now asking them to bug people’s bedrooms, apparently because he gets kicks from listening to people having sex.
Director Benedict Andrews avoids the temptation to make Jack a Saint, who somehow landed into his job by accident. He is complicit in everything that they do, and, despite pleas from his wife that he give up his job, he carries on. It’s not that he thinks that he can make the situation any better (though he does try to warn Seberg what’s happening), he’s just transfixed, a powerless tool of his overlords.
We join Jack in impotently watching Seberg implode. She develops increasing paranoia (maybe not the correct term, as They really are trying to destroy her), especially after she loses her baby girl. She attempts suicide, and leaves for France, never to appear in a Hollywood film again. By the end of the decade, she’d be found dead in a car. The circumstances of her death remain unclear.
There are moments in this film which feel a little forced, although maybe not those that you’d think. All the FBI misdemeanours seem entirely plausible. And the acting is superb, not least from Kristen Stewart in the unenviable role of having to play another great actress. The moments when Stewart conveys just what acting potential Seberg had are among the best in the film. Maybe some reviewers will finally stop seeing her as more than just that woman who was in the Twilight movies (having read some of the reviews of Seberg since I wrote this, maybe not).
As a final remark, congratulations to whoever organised the marvellous soundtrack. Contemporary songs like Scott Walker’s “It’s Raining Today” and Nina Simone’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” have not been used excessively on other soundtracks, so are still fresh here, and sound both terrific and heart-rending. They are used sparingly, and only at moments of great emotion, but are enough to make you realise that you’re watching a quality act.
Second viewing – June 2021
The gradual reopening of cinemas enables a second viewing of one of my favourite films of last year – now trading under the shortened name “Seberg”. Well, all I can say is that, while I can clearly see what I loved about it – not least Kristen Stewart’s thoughtful portrayal of the steady breakdown of the actress who was literally hounded to an early death by the FBI. But second time round, some of the flaws are much more visible.
Let’s start with the elephant that was always in the room – Jack, the “sympathetic” FBI agent who is presumably there to show that they aren’t all bad guys. Watching again, you see that this attitude permeates the film. So whereas I noticed that his med student wife asks him to give up his job, she is quick to suggest redeployment, where he can get one of those nice FBI jobs of helping old ladies across the road.
At no time does Jack have misgivings about what it is the FBI actually does. Last time round I saw this as nuance – the director wanting to show Jack as a rounded character. Now I’m not so sure. Jack’s reservations come for purely selfish reasons. Illegally wire tapping Black militants is a noble thing to do, but when pretty blonde actresses get caught in the crossfire, it’s time to draw the line.
The end of the film says that the practises of J Edgar Hoover were found to be illegal and Congress sent a message of disapproval. And even Seberg at least in the film version – says that the problem that a powerful institution has been influenced by individuals with too much power. So the problem is not systemic after all, and Jack can keep his job in the FBI with a clear conscience.
We see the other side of this whitewashing when we see how the Black characters are portrayed. Bobby Seale is a bigoted Black Nationalist who would cut off political allies if they slept with a white woman. And Jamal, the “Good” Black man has a policy of changing one mind at a time. The sense of the Panthers or any other organisation of radical militants is somehow missing.
One could argue that this was indeed the viewpoint of both the FBI and Hollywood liberals, seeing Black militants as only important for their radical chic and maybe their schools programmes, but aside from some newsreel of Eldridge Cleaver there is little in the film about organising against daily police brutality. The balance of political forces are thus only really changed because of infidelity and jealousy.
And let’s come to Seberg herself. As said, Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of her slow disintegration is masterful. But Seberg is always the victim and never has any real agency. Even while she’s talking about wanting to do a film about an interracial relationship, she always ends up being overruled offscreen by her agent and ending up instead in a shitty Western.
This is not to say that agents and Hollywood do not wield a ridiculous amount of power over which products they make. But the Seberg who comes to Hollywood on the back of her successes in France with Breathless and other nouvelle vague films is feisty and seems to know her own mind. It would have been worthwhile to show at least her going down with a fight.
To repeat: none of this means that you shouldn’t watch the film. It is well acted and tells an important story which has been hidden for too long. But it is also a film with clear limitations. First time round I was amazed that Hollywood could have produced so much. After a sober reappraisal, its clear that this was nowhere near enough.