Once you’ve seen Jean Seberg’s face, a marvel of secrecy and revelation akin to the shifting tones of leaves in afternoon light, you never forget it. Seberg is probably best known as the co-star of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 Breathless, a film that helped introduce the then-newborn French New Wave to the world. She plays the femme fatale Patricia Franchini, an American in Paris aspiring to be a journalist. Her handsome petty-criminal boyfriend, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, murders a policeman and retreats to Patricia’s apartment to hide, but in the end, rather than protecting him, she brings about his downfall. As Patricia, Seberg’s face is a charming but not fully readable mask of youthful self-assurance and ambition, half sweet, half cool, and framed by a sunray-colored pixie cut. She’s a gamine with a scheme, loyal to herself above all others.
Kristen Stewart, her features so unmistakable and definitive, is all wrong to play Seberg—but only until you’ve watched her for, say, 10 minutes, or maybe 15, after which she and the mysterious, beguiling, ill-fated actress appear to meld into one bold, shimmering presence. This Stewart-Seberg human hologram is the center of British stage director Benedict Andrews’ Seberg, playing here in Venice out of competition. Seberg isn’t strictly a biopic; it’s a blunt portrait of a woman, a political activist as well as a movie star, whose life was kicked into a downward spiral by a devious government organization. The picture is potent and engaging; even its fictionalized elements ring with the spirit of truth. And Stewart is off the charts, though that’s hardly a surprise. She’s among the greatest actresses of our day, though to call her “great” does a disservice to her subtlety—maybe it’s better to call her the master of the small gesture. The flicker of her eyelids is a dialect unto itself.
Seberg focuses on one period in the actress’ life, the late 1960s and early 1970s, during which she was the subject—and the victim—of an investigation launched by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program under the guidance of J. Edgar Hoover. Seberg, who was born in Iowa but made her name chiefly in European films, was by all accounts a thoughtful actor and human being, but her life wasn’t a happy one, and Andrews’ film offers some highly believable explanations for that. She attracted the FBI’s attention because she’d given money to several Civil Rights groups in the 1960s, as well as to the Black Panther Party. She was also involved in a brief extramarital affair with activist Hakim Abdullah Jamal (played here, with perfectly modulated expressiveness, by Anthony Mackie).
Beginning in the late 1960s, after Seberg had come to Hollywood to make a film (the 1969 musical Paint Your Wagon), the FBI harassed, intimidated and spied on her, prying into her personal life and spreading damaging rumors. In Seberg, the two FBI agents assigned to the case are played by Vince Vaughn and Jack O’Connell: It’s O’Connell’s character, Jack Solomon, who comes to feel sympathy for the duo’s target, seeing that she’s being needlessly crushed in the gears of Hoover’s plan to eradicate black activist groups. O’Connell brings some deeply human shading to his characterization of this by-the-book government guy. In one of the movie’s finest scenes—presumably a fantasy, a small, glittering thread of wishful thinking—Solomon approaches Seberg in a Parisian bar, circa the early 1970s, presenting her with her FBI file. She looks at it with anger, with curiosity—and then she passes it back to him. This is the movie’s way of granting Seberg some of the dignity she was denied in real life. In the movie, if not in life, she knows the extent of what was done to her; she couldn’t have known the scope of it as she was living through it, and suffering.
In 1970, when the bureau learned that Seberg was four months pregnant, they spread rumors that a leader of the Black Panther party had fathered the child. (In the film, Jamal is cited as the alleged father.) The rumors damaged not only Seberg’s professional reputation, but her personal life. She attempted suicide several times, and in 1979 was found dead in her car, not far from her Paris apartment. Her death was ruled a probable suicide. Her ex-husband, the writer Romain Gary, blamed the FBI for her death, claiming that the agency’s investigations caused permanent and escalating emotional damage.
Seberg doesn’t depict that end—the circumstances of the actress’ death are noted on a title card at the film’s close. That’s important, because Stewart plays Seberg as a woman full of life—she’s keeping Jean alive for us for the moments we’re able to watch her on-screen, and that time is precious. Stewart isn’t an impersonator or a mimic, which is why, in the early moments of Seberg, I found her a little wrong. Even with her perfectly bleached hair, and even though she’d perfected that elusive Sebergian half-pout, I looked at her and could see only Stewart, bold and brave in her stammering way. A little later, I saw how wrong I was. As an actor, Stewart is a vessel, not the driver of a vehicle. She didn’t “learn” Seberg; she opened herself up to this sad, lost woman, allowing her to rush in, to fill every channel and vein. Stewart hears the language of ghosts, and she translates it for us. The words are all there, finding their way out through the light in her eyes.