Deep into the 1960s period piece “Seberg,” Kristen Stewart as the title character glides through a New York hotel lobby to the lush and melancholy sounds of the cult hit “It’s Raining Today” by Scott Walker.
It’s maybe the most beautiful and haunting interlude I’ve seen in any movie so far this year — which makes it all the more infuriating that nearly everything else in this highly stylized and fictionalized biopic of the actress Jean Seberg is glossy trash.
The increasingly versatile and admirably risk-taking Stewart continues to turn in strong performances despite the failings of the material (she was by far the best thing in January’s “Alien” ripoff “Underwater,” as well as that lousy “Charlie’s Angels” reboot), and she does fine and fierce work here once again, even when the screenplay puts her in some ludicrous circumstances.
There’s about one-third of a good movie in “Seberg,” e.g., the scenes when Stewart allows us to see the sincere if naïve side of Jean, who was born in Marshalltown, Iowa, to a pharmacist and a substitute school teacher, landed the title role in Otto Preminger’s “Saint Joan” a month after her 18th birthday, and became a French New Wave icon after starring in Godard’s “Breathless” in 1960.
After an overly symbolic opening shot of Jean getting consumed by flames (and actually sustaining burns) while filming “Saint Joan,” the timeline shoots forward a decade to 1968 Paris.
Jean is a stunner and a star with close-cropped hair and a way of making yellow look like a newly invented and spectacular color. She’s married to the dashing and loving (if perhaps not entirely reliable) French novelist and director and diplomat Romain Gary, and they have a young son together.
Romain is to stay behind with their child while Jean flies to the States, in part to audition for a role in the big-budget musical “Paint Your Wagon.” On the flight from Paris, she meets and strikes up an instant rapport with Anthony Mackie’s Hakim Jamal, a real-life activist and cousin of Malcolm X.
And boom, just like that (at least according to the film), Jean Seberg is giving the black power salute with the Black Panthers in front of the flashbulb-popping paparazzi, hosting pot-fueled parties in her Hollywood home for radical activists and casually writing five-figure checks to various causes.
Nearly as quickly, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI makes Jean a major target. (It’s only fitting Jean’s home in Hollywood is wall-to-wall glass, seeing as how she lives in a fishbowl, with the public, the press and now the government watching her every move.)
The FBI infiltrates Jean’s home and later her New York City hotel room, planting mics everywhere and devoting an insane amount of time and energy to bringing her down and exposing her for associating with the Black Panthers and other targeted threats.
Jean is enamored with Hakim, and he’s just as taken with her — and maybe even more drawn to her celebrity power, noting, “We have to wave a shotgun to get people’s attention. You get your hair cut and you’re on the cover of Life magazine.”
The screenplay for “Seberg” is littered with clunky observations like that, e.g., when Hakim’s wife (a criminally underused Zazie Beetz) tells Jean, “You’re just a tourist” in the struggle, or when her husband tells Jean she’s not part of any great movement other than a movement “to end two marriages!”
There are a few impactful scenes in “Seberg,” as when the FBI exposes the affair between Jean and Hakim — and later, plants a false story about a prominent Black Panther being the father of Seberg’s unborn child. (The baby girl was delivered by emergency C-section and died three days later.) Vince Vaughn is a hiss-worthy villain as a racist FBI agent who gleefully endorses the organization’s despicable tactics.
Most problematic of all is the character of fictional FBI Agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), who is tasked with leading the surveillance and digging up dirt on Seberg and becomes deeply conflicted about his job.
The film spends far too much time on this guy — both at home and at work — as his sympathies for Seberg seem to border on some sort of weird crush.
Jean Seberg’s story, from her meteoric rise to stardom to various career and romantic ups and downs to the activism that drew the attention of the FBI to her tragic death at age 40, is the stuff of a classic Hollywood biopic. Why are we wasting time on some made-up FBI agent brooding at a hotel bar, obsessing over screen tests of Jean and getting into domestic drama at home?