Everyone fell in love with Jean Seberg. She was the perfect gamine of the Nouvelle Vague, with that darling little elfin haircut and matelot top, selling the Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysees in Jean Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle.
In the movie, Belmondo’s tough crook lost his heart to her, Patricia, the girl that sparked a thousand cigarettes. The irony was that while she defined Parisian style through the 1960s and beyond, she wasn’t French at all. Jean Seberg was from Iowa.
At 17, she’d been plucked from obscurity – won a talent competition, no less – to star as Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan in 1957. The director bullied her and even burnt her at the stake when a stunt went wrong, scars from which remained all her life.
I have a great photo of Seberg, timidly arriving with Yul Brynner at the premiere of Saint Joan in Paris in 1957. Just 22 years after that picture was taken, Jean Seberg was found dead in her own car, just a few steps away from the very same location.
So, yes, it’s a tragic story, the short life of Jean Seberg and it now comes to the screen in a mysterious and rather fascinating film, in which the actress is played, very well, by Kristen Stewart, a former teenage star herself during her Twillight years. So there’s a lovely note of empathetic shyness and coltish vulnerability to the acting here, despite the fact that Stewart looks fabulous throughout and is very determined to do as she pleases.
Although they feature in elegant little flashbacks, stills and montages, the film doesn’t detail Seberg’s film career much (roles in Paint Your Wagon and Airport, for example) but instead concentrates on the extraordinary developments of when she went back, for a time in the late 60s, to live in LA to try and make it in Hollywood.
Seberg becomes determined to help the Black Panthers in their political goals, holding fundraisers and parties for the black revolutionaries in her gorgeous Hollywood home. The film has it that she took a fancy to one of their leaders, Hakim Jamal, played by Anthony Mackie. I think there is some dispute about his in real life but there’s certainly no doubt about it in this version, as you can see from his stripy tiger pyjamas. Grrr.
Seberg is then spied upon by the FBI. Two agents snoop on and bug her, harass her from afar, making her life a misery. They’re a brute, played by Vince Vaughn, who’s someone you never want going through your bins, and a more sensitive, newer recruit, played by Jack O’Connell, who becomes rather obsessed with Seberg, torn between his admiration for her, a puppyish love, and his determination to do a great job and get promoted.
The spying becomes the meat of the film and the tactics the Bureau used to frighten and intimidate Seberg, driving her deeper into paranoia and threatening to expose her sexual affairs. We get to see the effect it had on the spies, too – not much in Vaughn’s boorish character’s case, but the spook played by O’Connell is deeply spooked by it all.
It’s a very enjoyable yet somehow deeply strange and sad film, all in all. A fashion thriller, very stylish in parts, with some great clothes and houses and yet it deals with racism and paranoia at the top of the American government, under the grisly rule of J Edgar Hoover, as well as with the sustained campaign of misogyny and smears that ruined a poor woman’s life (and possibly that of her baby), a woman who just wanted to live her life – politically and professionally – how she wanted but was continually thwarted by men and moralism.
I never knew all of this. I’d just known her from the movies, from A Bout de Souffle and Bonjour Tristesse. You never know what lurks behind an icon, I guess. So this film comes as a shock, one big enough to leave you Breathless, indeed.