2019 Mill Valley Film Festival
On October 7 Kristen Stewart appeared at the Mill Valley Film Festival for an extended conversation with Director of Programming Zoe Elton and Q&A after a screening of Seberg (2019).
Directed by Benedict Andrews from a screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, the film concentrates on three critical years in the life of actress Jean Seberg beginning in 1968. By that point, her best known films were behind her, notably Saint Joan (1957) for the tyrannical director Otto Preminger and the French New Wave classic Breathless (1960). After an introductory flashback to the filming of Saint Joan, Jean is living in Paris with her French husband, the writer Romane Gary (Yvan Attal). With Seberg’s short blonde hair, familiar from Breathless, Stewart dominates every room she enters as one can imagine Seberg once did.
Her radical politics and association with the Black Panthers was less well known. The Hollywood Blacklist had ended. Still, her social consciousness put her at odds with the studios and the choices they made for her. The musical Western Paint Your Wagon (1969) was a case in point.
In Seberg, there’s a “meet cute” on an airplane between Jean and self-styled revolutionary Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie). The costuming and production design brilliantly captures the glamour and excitement of the era. On the tarmac, she gives the “power” salute to the assembled reporters. There’s an element of the “Radical Chic” that Tom Wolfe wrote about. Fortunately, the scene doesn’t devolve into parody though it comes close. Mackie is excellent, spouting Malcolm X like rhetoric when addressing the media, then showing a quiet sensitivity in private moments with Jean. Hakim is also married, to Dorothy (Zazie Beetz), a young woman committed to social justice. While tracking Hakim’s group, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI discovers the affair with Jean and begins a surveillance on her. The combination of her left-leaning politics and interracial relationships set off Hoover and the Bureau hounded her for the rest of her life. The film has her remaining paranoid about bugging devices even when she returns to Paris.
Seberg uses the FBI surveillance as a framing device, foregrounding a pair of FBI agents. Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) is the “good” agent and Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn) is a ruthless, bigoted one. Colm Meaney, the quintessential Irish cop, is bureau chief Frank Ellroy. In response to an audience question, Stewart acknowledged that these are fictional characters. The Jack character seems too good to be true. Englishman O’Connell was excellent in the British ’71 (2014) but is far less memorable here. There’s a half-hearted attempt to humanize the character by giving him a thoughtful wife who’s a UCLA medical student (Margaret Qualley).
In a scenario reminiscent of Laura (1944) where the detective falls in love with a woman’s portrait, Jack becomes obsessed with Jean, the target whose phone he tapped. That elevates the story slightly above a standard police procedural. A nice FBI agent, though, during Hoover’s time or even now seems unlikely. Vince Vaughn makes a good villain but his character is a bad cop stereotype with little screen time. While I appreciate the filmmakers intention of developing the supporting characters to enrich the film, that would make more sense in an ensemble piece. This is a star vehicle for Stewart, a movie about a movie star. The film loses focus when it veers off into the lives of the side characters.
Among the film’s highlights are the opening and closing scenes where Stewart gives us a glimpse into Jean’s interior life. In the post screening interview, Stewart was engaging, using words like “performative” one moment, then saying “like dude” the next. She did extensive research into Jean Seberg’s life and spoke of her as a woman ahead of her time. Someone in the audience asked if she’d met Jean’s son or other family members. She hadn’t and wondered how their reaction would be to something that wasn’t a biopic and instead had a narrower focus. She praised her pal Rachel Morrison (Mudbound ), the film’s Academy Award nominated cinematographer.
Music by Jed Kurzel
Cinematography by Rachel Morrison
Film Editing by Pamela Martin
Production Design by Jahmin Assa
Art Direction by Justin Allen
Set Decoration by Christy McIrwin
Costume Design by Michael Wilkinson