“New York Herald Tribune,” cried 21-year-old Jean Seberg as she marched down the Champs-Élysées. She was an American in Paris: the imported poster girl of Jean-Luc Godard’s revolutionary Breathless. Few actors embodied the footloose buoyancy of the New Wave like Seberg, an airy midwesterner with a political edge. And few would have guessed that she was heading for the rocks.
No doubt there’s a brilliant tragic drama to be made about the life of Seberg, who spoke out for civil rights, supported the Black Panthers and was duly dragged through the mud by J Edgar Hoover’s FBI. But it emphatically isn’t Benedict Andrews’ bantamweight biopic, a tale of shadowy US history that feels machine-tooled and suspect and is shot with the hyper-real lighting one normally finds in a photographer’s studio or shopping mall. It tells us that Seberg was wronged and that she looked really great in a bra – and not necessarily in that order.
Kristen Stewart stars as the actor-at-a-crossroads, tottering around late-60s LA with her blouse unbuttoned and her chequebook hanging open. She’s heartily sick of being America’s sweetheart and wants to use whatever leverage she has to fight the power and support the cause. Her new lover, Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), introduces her to the Panthers. Her stick-in-the-mud agent almost drops dead on the spot.
Stewart’s a fabulous actor, as demonstrated in Personal Shopper, Certain Women, any number of others, and she sets about this role with a grim determination that’s admirable in and of itself. What lets her down is the by-numbers plotting, together with the sort of flat, declamatory dialogue that might have been lifted from a teen-magazine photo story. She says, “I want to make a difference” and “I’ve been running from that girl my whole life.” She says, “I’m funding the Panthers”, just to be absolutely sure that we’re all up to speed.
The FBI certainly knows the score. It loathes Seberg and all that she stands for and not even Jack O’Connell’s conscience-stricken G-man can step in to prevent the demolition job they have planned. And here, in its closing stages, the film finally becomes the serious, sombre picture it probably should have been all along, as the actor falls to pieces and starts tearing her apartment apart in search of bugs, like Harry Caul at the end of The Conversation. The battle is over and the dream is in tatters. The tale can move with the freedom of a film that has nothing left to lose.