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Seberg (2019) Film Review

Seberg is the story of an outsider who happened to make all the wrong choices. Kristen Stewart and Jack O’Connell excel in Benedict Andrews’ “love song” to Jean Seberg.

If you’re familiar with Jean Seberg’s name, you probably know her for her iconic performance in Jean Luc-Godard’s Breathless. You might remember her from Otto Preminger’s unsuccessful feature Saint Joan, where she was burned at the stake as a seventeen-year-old Joan of Arc, or from Robert Rossen’s Lilith, in which she acted alongside Warren Beatty and Peter Fonda. Yet, there is much more to be said about Jean Seberg. While her international fame came from audiences perceiving her as an icon of the French New Wave, it is her personal life that caused quite a stir, after she became involved with the Black Power movement and was illegally put under FBI surveillance. The Breathless actress’s life story is a complex and controversial one, and Benedict Andrews brings us a noir-like thriller that pierces together a series of historical events in a narrative that is as beautifully woven together as it is gripping, moving and thought-provoking.

Benedict Andrews’ Jean (Kristen Stewart) is a not an easy character to understand, at first. Though the film shows a few glimpses of her private and public life, it’s hard to get to know the real Jean, so much that, when she offers to give up her seat on a plane and leave room for Black Power activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), we don’t quite know what to think. Does she knowingly make that choice because she knows that her involvement with the civil rights movement won’t go unnoticed? Or is she just a naive, well-intentioned young woman looking for a cause to believe in? As we become more familiar with our enigmatic protagonist, what becomes clearer is that, while she might have been approached by Jamal for her wealth and popularity, Jean Seberg is so much more than a naive, rich actress to exploit for financial support and publicity.

Simply put, Andrews’ Jean is an outsider. She is a strong-willed, open-minded, opinionated young woman who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and, as a result, chose the wrong project to get involved in. “If you can change one mind, you can change the world”, Jamal preaches when introducing the movement and his beliefs to an enthusiastic Jean, who isn’t yet aware of how many minds she’s going to desperately want to change in the future. As she becomes the target of a covert FBI operation aimed at disrupting political organizations, she is quickly put under surveillance by agents who are looking for new ways to disrepute Jamal’s movement. As a result, Jean becomes the victim of a broken system, and the FBI’s surveillance operation turns into ruthless harassment when disinformation is spread with the sole purpose of discrediting the actress, with serious consequences on her personal life. And it’s precisely when all hope is lost that she finds out whose mind needed to be changed.

Loud and Clear Reviews Seberg Kristen Stewart Venice Film Festival venezia76 Jean
Kristen Stewart in Seberg (Courtesy of La Biennale)

What Benedict Andrews describes as a “love song to Jean” doesn’t focus on the Breathless actress as much as you’d expect it to. Though Seberg is based on real events, it is first and foremost a fictional account aimed at keeping its viewers on the edge of their seats. You won’t find much information on Jean Seberg’s career, nor will you find a great deal of insight into the actress’ persona. Instead, you’ll find a noir-like thriller that shows you key moments of Jean’s life and draws clever connections between its main characters, whose storylines have been interwoven to create new meaning. In a film where most of the action consists of microphone bugging, breaking and entering, phones ringing at inappropriate times and a great deal of paranoia, it is those brief moments of genuine connection between its characters that captivate us.

“They will destroy you. Your reputation, your career, your family. Everything”

Jack Solomon

FBI recruit Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) is as much of a protagonist to Seberg as Jean is. Not only do both characters evolve in a similar way, but they sometimes cross paths in ways that highlight their most important trait – their humanity. Seberg establishes a beautiful, unconventional, sometimes even poetic connection between its two leading characters: it is this unexpected parallelism that truly makes the film worth watching, and both actors’ performances help move the narrative forward in a delicate yet highly impactful way.

If Kristen Stewart initially strikes viewers for her physical resemblance to her real-life counterpart, it is her impressive performance that truly leaves a mark. Even though the film’s screenplay doesn’t always leave her room to shine, the Twilight actress perfectly captures Jean Seberg’s essence, and delivers a series of emotionally charged sequences in a believable and unexpected way. Yet, the real surprise of the film is Jack O’Connell, who tackles a complex character in a clever and highly emotional way, and who is responsible for the most moving and powerful scene of the film.

“If you can change one mind, you can change the world”.

Hakim Jamal

So how can a film as complex, emotional and tense as Seberg come to an end? In a beautifully moving, surprisingly simple way. Seberg‘s final scenes are also its most memorable moments, and those in which the film’s message truly resonates. When the world has turned you into a victim, when the truth has been buried too deep, when too many wrong choices have been made, sometimes all you need is to be acknowledged, establish a connection with someone and find your humanity again. Just as Jamal had predicted, “If you can change one mind, you can change the world”.

Seberg premiered at the Venice Film Festival on 30th August, 2019 and is now available to watch on digital and on demand.

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