Only one week after elevating the B-grade material of deep-sea thriller Underwater, Kristen Stewart further proves her innate ability of hoisting what little she has to work with on a script page to something of sublime quality in Seberg. A biographical drama detailing a specific time period in the life of American actress Jean Seberg – whose performance in the 1960 French crime drama Breathless immortalised her as an icon of French New Wave cinema – Benedict Andrews‘ soap opera-esque feature suffers from a case of identity crisis, unsure just where to place its focus.
It’s 1968 when the film begins, and Jean is gearing up to leave her French filmmaker husband (Yvan Attal) for an audition in Hollywood. Aboard the flight over she is intrigued by Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a black activist who makes something of a scene in the first class cabin, essentially accusing the airline of refusing him a seat due to his skin colour. Jean’s positive reaction to his uproar foreshadows the headline-grabbing act that follows when they both exit the plane in Los Angeles, where she joins Hakim’s activist group on the tarmac in black power salute. Whether it’s an act of solidarity in the fight towards racial equality or a mere publicity stunt isn’t immediately clear, but it catches the attention of the FBI all the same.
Given how interesting Jean appears to be as a figure, it’s a shame that Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse‘s script doesn’t find footing on solid ground throughout. The fact that a white public figure became romantically involved with a person of colour (extra martial affairs for them both too) in the racially prejudice time period of the 1960’s should have been more than enough fodder to successfully fill a 100 minute running time. And when Seberg flirts with this dynamic (Zazie Beetz does some wonderfully introspective work as Jamal’s suspicious wife) the results are tantalising. And though a focus on the FBI agents involved makes sense narratively, the film’s decision to extend that to include the home life of the investigative duo (Jack O’Connell and Vince Vaughn, both fine) ultimately adds little weight overall, serving as unnecessary filler.
The intention to make a film of genuine intrigue is there, and even without the complexities of the time being utilised (the Civil Rights Movement and the power of the press media aren’t given a platform), Seberg still manages to command attention – flaws and all – thanks to the sublime work of Stewart, who continues to cement herself as one of her generation’s most daring and committed performers.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Seberg is screening in Australian theatres in limited release from January 30th