Beginning a movie with the heroine getting burned at the stake is one way to introduce the theme of martyrdom — not exactly subtle, but it does the job.
In “Seberg,” there’s justification for this vivid image. Jean Seberg, the subject of the story and one of Hollywood’s casualties, actually did play Joan of Arc. And in her first movie, too.
But this film, with Kristen Stewart cast as Seberg, isn’t about Seberg’s Joan, although that’s quite a story in itself. Picked out of a national talent search by domineering director Otto Preminger for his 1957 “Saint Joan,” the teenager was overwhelmed by the Hollywood apparatus. She soon ended up in Paris, where she became an icon of the French New Wave in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 New Wave film “Breathless.”
That’s in the past as we meet Seberg in the late 1960s. Still living in France with her husband, the novelist Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), and their young son, she gets tempted back to Hollywood to revive her career.
Her involvement with various civil-rights causes, and specifically the Black Panthers, draws the attention of the FBI, which eavesdrops on her conversations and her relationship with activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie).
The FBI’s vicious smear campaign against Seberg is documented here. In fact, the film’s fascination with surveillance takes up a curiously large amount of screen time.
We follow a federal agent (Jack O’Connell, from “Unbroken”) assigned to the Seberg case, as his wife (Margaret Qualley, Brad Pitt’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” temptress) grows increasingly concerned.
Vince Vaughn and Colm Meaney plays FBI bosses whose enthusiasm for, say, audiotaping Seberg’s sex life is beyond the call of duty. This unsavory war against the actress makes it all the more puzzling that O’Connell’s agent is presented as the film’s co-lead, someone who will experience some sort of enlightenment along the way.
This seems like the biggest misstep in director Benedict Andrews’ scheme, but not the only one. “Seberg” meanders from presenting the actress as an ahead-of-her-time activist to a somewhat unbalanced free spirit.
Stewart, bearing the cropped blond hairstyle Seberg made famous in “Breathless,” works hard to bring the character to life. She catches the intelligence and the intensity, but Seberg remains a bit of a blank.
The disinformation operation against Jean Seberg did real damage to her health and career, although she soldiered on for some time after the events of the movie. It would interesting to know what was happening with her during those years, when she stayed as far away from Hollywood as possible, living mostly in Europe.
Seberg was interviewed for the New York Times in 1974, five years before she suffered a sordid death at age 40. In the interview, she couldn’t imagine what she might be doing 10 years in the future. “Who knows what life will do to you?” she said, a sad question from the lips of a multiple martyr.
“Seberg” (2½ stars)
A look into the damaging FBI smear campaign against the actress Jean Seberg, who got involved with the Black Panthers in the late 1960s. Kristin Stewart works hard as the “Breathless” star, but the movie spends too much time with the FBI agents (including Jack O’Connell and Vince Vaughn) to sketch her character in.
Rating: R, for nudity, language
Opening Friday: Alderwood Mall, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place