The feature film "Jean Seberg" with Kristen Stewart tells of the actress’ commitment to the Black Panthers. It relies on the power of dialog.
Cutting hair or brandishing a gun? Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) wants both Photo: Prokino
These lines hit, "We have to brandish a gun to get attention …" says black civil rights activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) to white actress Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart), "… You get a haircut, and you’re on the cover of Life Magazine."
At this point, Seberg and Jamal are already secretly a couple. Although the secrecy is relative – Jamal’s wife suspects the relationship, and far more consequential: the FBI, which has been observing Jamal’s ways for some time, had become aware of Seberg’s sympathy for the black civil rights movement in the U.S. – that was enough to be considered a danger to society in her home country, which is still segregative today.
The U.S. authorities decided to put the artist under surveillance. Seberg’s resulting, understandable fear soon turned into paranoia; slanderous and inflammatory press reports about Seberg’s alleged "Black Panther pregnancy," as told by film and biographers, led to a miscarriage. Seberg, who never worked in the U.S. again after that, killed herself in 1979 – she had already made several suicide attempts, always on the anniversary of the death of her daughter, who she had lost in 1970.
Benedict Andrews’ partial biopic, ending with the events of 1970, about Jean Seberg, who with her pixie short haircut and charisma had become famous a few years earlier through Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle Vague parade film "Out of Breath," also sets the scene for the relationship between genders and skin colors in addition to the tragedy surrounding the actress.
"Jean Seberg – Against All Enemies." Directed by Benedict Andrews. With Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell et al. USA 2019, 102 min.
Using various examples, the film seems to evaluate couple constellations: Jean and her French husband, writer Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) have a problematic but respectful, effortfully consensual, open relationship – Gary is the father of their shared son and remains by her side as a friend even after Seberg’s pregnancy by another (not Jamal). FBI agent and wiretap specialist Jack (Jack O’Connell), who first bugs Seberg and then has qualms about the consequences, fails to meet his wife Linette’s (Margaret Qualley) demands for equality.
The revolution needs movie stars
It’s all bitterly mirrored by Jack’s supervisor Carl (Vince Vaughn), who dresses down his family at dinner with the same patriarchal matter-of-factness evident in his treatment of a person under surveillance. "You don’t talk to your son anymore?", Carl is asked by his colleague. "Believe me, we talked so much I almost broke my knuckles," he replies, just before throwing cutlery in his daughter’s face.
And Jamal’s wife (Zazie Beetz) is angry but impotent in the face of her husband’s philandering – "the Revolution needs movie stars," she tells Jean.
In any case, Jean, who plays Stewart with the appropriate proportions of vulnerability, courage, and despair, remains alone – early in the story, she leaves her son and husband behind in Paris to shoot in Hollywood, and wanders restlessly through her elegant ’60s domicile, fueled by whiskey and the question of how her profession helps shape the world: "A Western musical is inconsequential," she had earlier told her manager Walt (Stephen Root), "I want to make a difference!"
Quotable sayings put into the mouth
Director Andrews, who subtly expresses much of Seberg’s brokenness through the soundtrack featuring Scott Walker, David Crosby, and Nina Simone, makes his dialogue more powerful than the solid images (despite a charming costume picture and set design): Together with screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, he has put quotable sayings into the mouths of his protagonists that effortlessly touch a second level.
Above all, he portrays Jamal as a well-read and eloquent man: "If you can change one mind, you can change the world," he says to Jean in a slight variation of a quote by philosopher William James. And the fact that the dark song "Blood of an American" by the white country singer Bobby Wright plays during one of Seberg’s scenes of loneliness is doubly meaningful: "Bobby E. Wright" is also the name of a black political activist and scientist who researched the psychological dimensions of racism.
By the way, Seberg still did the Western musical mentioned ("Paint Your Wagon") – in the film it is an exhausting experience. But it by no means represented the first lasting trauma in her profession: Seberg made her debut film, "St. Joan," when she was 18. Directed by Otto Preminger, she stood on a funeral pyre and, unplanned, was briefly caught in the flames. She wore the burn scars all her life – so her fearful gesture in the finished version is authentic.
"Where did they come from?" her lover Jamal wants to know in "Jean Seberg," given the stigmata. "A man put me on a funeral pyre and set me on fire," she replies. But the real witch hunt for Jean Seberg was just beginning.