Actors playing other actors always feels like a dangerous act of appropriation. Geoffrey Rush in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, James Franco in James Dean and Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, all feel like a claim is being made: “I can play them inside and out, so I must also be better than them.”
It’s like Harold Bloom’s ‘Anxiety of Influence’ thesis – that artists all kill their progenitors – made celluloid flesh. And so in Benedict Andrews’ Seberg, Kristen Stewart doesn’t just play the ill-fated actor and civil rights activist – she devours her. We first see her reenacting the famous scene from Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan, during the filming of which the flames got out of hand and Jean was badly burned. It’s an apt place to start because we are to witness another martyrdom of sorts.
Ten years on and Jean is leaving France with her husband Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) and son to return to Hollywood as Paris burns with revolutionary fervour. On the plane, she meets Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a Muslim convert and black civil rights activist escorting Malcolm X’s widow home. Seberg joins the protest at the airport where she is witnessed by an FBI surveillance team, who are spying on Jamal and the Black Panthers. This team includes Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), a young idealistic sound engineer who becomes increasingly obsessed with Seberg and troubled by the moral lows the FBI are willing to go to.
What follows is a romance between Seberg and Jamal and a spy thriller as Jack and his gung-ho partner Carl (Vince Vaughn) start to surveil the film star as a primary target. In order to destroy her image, they reveal her affair with Jamal to his wife Dorothy (Zazie Beetz) and sabotage her efforts to help the Black Power movement. Seberg is easy meat to the feds: she likes her booze and pills and is naive as to her vulnerability in the world of show business. But this is the 1960s in bright primary colours, with no nuance or grit to it. Seberg’s own radicalism might not be a pose but it certainly has poise. Her cringeworthy sidling in to join in a Black Power salute is supposed to be audacious but looks desperately woke. Stewart’s characterisation of Seberg involves a lot of hair touching and beautiful outfits. As Seberg further unravels, her get-up remains stunning, with a particularly gorgeous transparent teddy worn as she walks into her swimming pool with a drink in hand.
Superficiality soaks the entire film. Carl is a cartoonish blowhard and a bully to his own family, to contrast the straightlaced Jack. His wife (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Margaret Qualley) is training to be a doctor when she’s not questioning her husband’s motives and bringing him the paper with exposition on the front page. The real crime here is that screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse have a fascinating story to tell but in wanting to keep things simple they’ve lost the edginess and danger of those days. Just for one example, Jamal was actually an extremely ambiguous character who ended up being murdered in a suspected factional dispute by other black radicals. But here he walks around community centres full of children giving inspirational speeches about how we only have to change one mind.
Cinematographer Rachel Morrison shoots everything so beautifully that it almost feels like a Mad Men version of the counterculture. Stewart has gained much-deserved kudos for her post-Twilight choices, but put beside a figure like Jean Seberg she seems to be out of her league. And Seberg, for all its best intentions, ultimately fails for not being as radical as its own inspiration.
The 76th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August-7 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty