Kendra Steiner Editions

March 14, 2020

SEBERG (2020), starring Kristen Stewart

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 10:28 pm
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Jean Seberg in the film that made her a star, Otto Preminger’s SAINT JOAN (1957)



Scenes from LILITH (1964, directed by Robert Rossen), considered by many to be Seberg’s finest English-language performance




Iowa-born Jean Seberg (1938-1979) had a film career of less than 20 years and passed away at the age of 40. She did not appear in a film during the final three years of her life. However, much of her early work….from SAINT JOAN (1957) through BREATHLESS (1960) through LILLITH (1964)….is sublime. She deserves to be better known today, and there is something to savor in every one of her performances, right up through her final film, an Ibsen adaptation from 1976 with Bruno Ganz. Looking at her filmography, I can say that I’ve seen about 70% of her 35-film body of work. Had she lived, she might have continued to alternate European art films and/or literate dramas with genre films. Maybe she would have returned to the US and taken a role in one of the “nighttime soaps” like KNOTS LANDING or FALCON CREST, which loved to give a platform to the glamourous stars of the past. Maybe she would have gone into charitable or political work, devoting her time to the UN or some other international agency. Who knows….

Calling this new film ‘SEBERG’ suggests that it might be a biopic, but it really isn’t. It covers only about 4 years in her life, and it both leaves out fairly significant items (the affair with Clint Eastwood—-oh, he’s still alive, isn’t he….although he did discuss the affair in a German interview you can find online) and fictionalizes a good bit of what’s left. The character of Hakim Jamal, the Black political and cultural activist she befriends and gets involved with, is presented as the voice of reason, the person with his feet on the ground. Perhaps he was at the time of his relationship with Seberg, but a little research on him shows that in the period after that (and he died before Seberg!), he was supposedly quite the megalomaniac with a messianic complex (and let’s not forget his involvement with the infamous Michael X). Perhaps he straightened himself out when he returned to his wife and to Boston to run the Malcolm X Foundation—-I certainly hope so. Jamal was murdered in 1973.  I thought his name rang a bell and eventually remembered that I’d read his book FROM THE DEAD LEVEL as a teenager.

The other main character in the film is an FBI agent (a fictionalized character, though Seberg was heavily monitored and messed with by the FBI) who is assigned to follow and wiretap/record/film her and ordered to create disinformation about her. He gradually becomes disillusioned with this and eventually wants to get out because of his conscience, as he can see the harm he is doing to this woman. OK, that makes sense. What does not make sense is the outrageous climactic scene near the film’s finale where the agent meets Seberg in a bar in Paris, after she’s returned to Europe. I won’t provide a spoiler and tell you what unfolds, but it is ridiculous and would never happen in real life….and it seems forced and ridiculous even in movie life. Were I not the only person in the theater watching SEBERG, I’d tell you how the other members of the audience reacted. Myself, I hooted at the screen.

Still, despite what I’ve written above, I consider this film very much a success and highly recommend it. Kristen Stewart (I’d only seen her once before, in Woody Allen’s CAFE SOCIETY, where she was very convincing) lights up the screen and makes us feel for her character, with a lot of subtlety and a lot of close-ups, the most demanding kind of film acting. Anthony Mackie is also fantastic as Hakim Jamal, a well-meaning but flawed individual. Mackie has been superb in everything I’ve seen him in, and he’s played a wide variety of roles. And Vince Vaughn is quite entertaining as an over-the-top and mean-spirited FBI agent who plays “bad cop” to the “good cop” whose story provides the backbone of the film. The late 60’s L.A. created by the film’s production design is sparkling and gaudy, with a sour and astringent kind of beauty, and is best appreciated on a big screen (I’m glad I caught this at the theater).

If you are not expecting great insight into the real Jean Seberg’s entire life and career, only a brief period in the late 60’s, and you just take this as the story of a character named Jean Seberg and a chaacter named Hakim Jamal, and you forget you saw the cringe-worthy scene near the end in the Paris bar, the film is riveting, or at least I found it to be so. If it generates interest in Jean Seberg’s career and it also creates interest in learning more about today’s intelligence-monitoring abuses, then it’s a worthwhile project.

When I admire some public figure, I usually hope that a film IS NOT made about them. More often than not, it misses the mark, and sometimes the films are so putrid, I feel sorry for the real-life person being depicted (thankfully, the film with Will Smith as Billy Strayhorn was never made!). However, in a film such as SEBERG or THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY, the end result might not be accurate biography, but captures a greater truth, which makes me forgive the inaccuracies. The most important thing missing in the film is what made Seberg tick as an actress, how did she approach her craft. However, that’s not what this film is about, and also, in the period depicted in the film, she is trying to re-establish herself in Hollywood and appearing in films she is not at all proud of or interested in. Great acting is not what PAINT YOUR WAGON or MACHO CALLAHAN were about. Prior to this period, yes. After this period, yes to a large extent….in fact, I’d LOVE to see her 70’s period dealt with, as she works in the European cinema in more mature roles and in genre films.

Check out SEBERG, despite the mediocre reviews (although Rex Reed liked it, thankfully–he’s always his own man). And after that, find a copy of SAINT JOAN and LILLITH—-I presume anyone reading this has seen Godard’s BREATHLESS.

Until then, check out the trailers below, to get a taste of some of the European genre films she was making after the period depicted in SEBERG. Everyone needs to see the trailer KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!, written and directed by her husband Romain Gary (also a major character in the SEBERG film), at least once….then pick your jaw up off the floor!

p.s., It’s also interesting that the production company that holds the copyright on SEBERG is called RADICAL CHIC, LLC (yes, I stayed until the copyright statement at the end). The film certainly captures that phenomenon well, and one of the most hard-hitting and honest moments in the film is when Jamal’s wife Dorothy calls Seberg a “tourist.” There are actually a number of moments in the film that ring true to real life, undoubtedly a big reason I feel so favorably toward SEBERG the film.


Kristen Stewart as Jean Seberg


seberg and cat

the real JEAN SEBERG, Italy, late 1960’s


The incredibly over-the-top trailer for the incredibly over-the-top film KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL! (1971), written and directed by Seberg’s husband Romain Gary, starring Seberg, Stephen Boyd, and James Mason….I saw this a few years ago on a DVD-R made by a friend and I still haven’t recovered. I did not know this got a US release, but here is the proof….a trailer from Cinerama Releasing!



Trailer for the Italian political crime film GANG WAR IN NAPLES (1972), starring Raymond Pellegrin, Fabio Testi, and Jean Seberg….


1 Comment »

  1. Excellent article as ever Bill. I don’t see a lot of modern movies but Stewart was excellent as Joan Jett in the Runaways biopic. I’m particularly picky with rock movies but it hard to find fault with this one.

    Comment by GL — March 15, 2020 @ 3:48 pm | Reply

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