By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
Although often unspoken, there is a frequently assumed “right” and “wrong” way to approach an artist’s body of work, be they a novelist, composer, director or actor. In this sense, I came to Jean Seberg all wrong. My first encounter with her was not the default “essentials” like Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 nouvelle vague classic Breathless or even Otto Preminger’s 1957 film Joan of Arc, Seberg’s famous breakthrough role after winning an nation-wide talent search to play the role of the young martyred French saint.
I first discovered Seberg when home sick from school in my early teens on a day when Robert Rossen’s 1964 film Lilith happened to be on television. It was interrupted with far too many commercials and the print was panned-and-scanned within an inch of its life, but regardless, I was transfixed. I had no context for Seberg other than this performance, and it was like being struck by lightning: I was a fan for life. Over the years since, Breathless and Joan of Arc were amongst other films that enhanced my familiarity of her filmography, but this was alongside other, less beatified titles. I have, for example, an unapologetic soft-spot for Joshua Logan’s 1969 musical western Paint Your Wagon with Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood, and I’ll even fight with a knife in my teeth for some of her undeniably nasty later-career work in European exploitation cinema such as Juan Antonio Bardem’s sleazy The Corruption of Chris Miller from 1973.
This brief introductory summary of my own encounters with Seberg’s work is more than a mere indulgence; to watch Benedict Andrews’s biopic Seberg which had its North American premiere at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, you would be forgiven for missing the fact that she was an actor at all. Reduced here to the crudest “doomed celebrity on a downward spiral” tropes, Seberg’s actual work as an actor is virtually dismissed as a footnote, a barely acknowledged curio that merely had the practical function of making her famous. Beyond a ham-fisted but unsustained metaphorical association between Joan of Arc as the tortured martyr and Seberg’s own tragic story, Seberg’s actual career takes a backseat to the more tabloid-friendly aspects of her life that so famously marked her decline and eventual death at the age of 40 in 1970.
In what is becoming a concerning trend, the undeniably talented Kristen Stewart has put in an extraordinary performance in an otherwise overwhelmingly ordinary biopic. In 2018 she was the highlight of both Craig Macneill’s Lizzie and Justin Kelly’s JT LeRoy (the latter which also played TIFF last year), otherwise milquetoast affairs that saw Stewart’s skills effectively wasted on pedestrian filmmaking and feeble screenplays. Jean Seberg, however, was surely the role she was born to play; even the most cursory Google image search underscores how shrewd the casting was, and with her usual high level of commitment, you can see on screen how much work Stewart put into the performance in terms of gesture and body language alone. She did her research.
The same cannot be said for others involved in the film; or, to be fair, perhaps they did do their research and in a conscious effort to amplify the spectacle of Seberg’s demise, chose to jettison it in favour of a few almost impressively tasteless fictional additions. Picking up on Seberg’s story as she leaves Paris to return to the United States for work, she meets Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) on the flight and simultaneously becomes both romantically involved with him and a publicly visible supporter of the Black Power movement. It is the latter that leads her to the Black Panthers, putting her firmly on the radar of the FBI and becoming a key target for J. Edgar Hoover and his personal vendetta against high-profile left-wing Hollywood activists. Placed under intensive surveillance, she is continually harassed; the government spreads rumours about her, the stress and paranoia culminating in a number of suicide attempts and the death of her baby daughter Nina at two days old. Although never confirmed, Seberg’s eventual death was formally declared a “probable suicide.”
Between this and Seberg’s actual career, one would think there would be ample material for a compelling film that would speak in a timely manner to the supposed current reckoning in the film industry about the institutionalized mistreatment of women (not to mention the complex intersection of race and politics in her story). And yet, somehow, for Seberg this wasn’t enough. Enter Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), a fictional FBI agent who specializes in surveillance. We see Jack and his wife settle into their new home, we see him excitedly take his first job, breaking into Seberg’s home, wire-tapping her phone and installing microphones, then sitting in a telephone repair truck outside dutifully taking photos as he documents her sex life.
Seberg is thus bewilderingly framed as much as Jack’s story as it is Jean’s. It is as much a tale of redemption of a naive FBI agent who has a crisis of conscience about ruining a woman’s life as it is Seberg’s experience of her life falling apart at the hands of his harassment. Jean’s story is an irreversible downhill slide – we know that before the film even begins – while Jack, although he’s certainly not the “hero” in simplistic terms, is granted something far more wholesome: his is a journey of moral self-discovery and implied long-term betterment. What makes this even more uncomfortable is that in terms of screen time, Jack’s story is deemed somehow more important than the many, many aspects of Seberg’s life that the film ignores, simplifies or straight-up rewrites. How one can look at the life of Jean Seberg and think “what this story needs is less about Jean Seberg and more about the FBI agent who destroyed her” is beyond eyebrow-raising, wandering dangerously close to the realm of the grotesque.
Similar to Mark Rappaport’s 1996 docudrama From the Journals of Jean Seberg, now almost fifty years since her death there still seems to be an almost sadistic desire to speak over Seberg, to speak for her. The one thing she has in her favor is her filmography, which for reasons that are truly incomprehensible is the one thing Seberg consciously chooses to downplay the most. For those of us for whom her work means so much, we deserve better. Kristen Stewart deserves better. And most of all, of course, Jean Seberg deserves better.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).