Photo: Amazon Studios
Before We Vanish by Luke Gorham Film

Seberg | Benedict Andrews

December 28, 2019

Seberg is just the latest film to signal its interest in issues of racial injustice, and progressive commentary, only to counterproductively build itself around the travails of the privileged instead — specifically the rich, white, beautiful movie star Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart). Conceiving the film around such an iconic, complex personality does certainly ensure bankability. But if we take things less cynically, there is at least a story hinted at here about the American government’s all-consuming obsession with maintaining the social status quo —even to the point of targeting society’s most visible members — due to status as sympathizer or ally. Even still, conventionality is the guiding force in a film whose moral core is a principled FBI officer, a cipher onto which audiences can project their own self-congratulatory decency.

Several aggrieved black characters are pushed to the periphery in favor of Seberg’s more histrionic and palatably white-people storyline. There’s also the token villain, predictably arch, on which to direct all ire, and a laundry list of government officials who exist to embody the inherent corruption of agenda-driven intelligence agencies. Stewart, for her part, is an actress of distinctive presence, but one who can feel alarmingly incongruous if miscast. Here she’s both: her unsettled nature works in the film’s second half, as paranoia seeps in and instability shines out, but the composed, charismatic Seberg of the film’s initial stretch never fits. Ultimately, the problem here isn’t execution — director Benedict Andrews functionally, if unexceptionally, navigates through a suspense-building narrative that’s beholden to its particular structure — but rather the failing of Seberg is one of conception. In dismissing the tragedy of these characters in ways other than how they relate to Seberg, a movement’s systemic oppression is implicitly diminished and made byproduct of conspiratorial melodrama.

Published as part of December 2019’s Before We Vanish.