That knee-jerk media appellation “actor and activist” takes on severe meaning in the new film Seberg, a biopic about American actress Jean Seberg who became an international sensation in Jean-Luc Godard’s debut film Breathless (1960) and who died ignominiously a couple of decades later, after her involvement in anti-U.S. political activity and being under FBI surveillance.
Director Benedict Andrews, screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, and actress Kristen Stewart (who plays Seberg) use the “actor and activist” label to indulge an idea of martyrdom that comes too easily to them. It’s an extravagance of privileged Millennial media to combine self-righteous ideology with romanticism. Godard always saw through it (detailed below).
The movie follows Seberg’s career decline, presenting it as the summation of her doom and a consequence of American political subterfuge. (“Speaking out against the perceived flaws of the government is a type of persecution,” she protests.) That means the artistic part of Seberg’s legacy gets short shrift, in favor of making a shady political critique: White, blond Seberg was investigated as part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO project for her support of the Black Panther Party. Seberg helped fund the Panthers and also had an affair with black activist Hakim Jamal (played by Anthony Mackie), by whom she got pregnant.
Interracial controversy is part of the film’s titillation. Sixties sexual mores are exposed in the plot’s contrast between Seberg’s permissive radicalism and the guilt-ridden conservatism of the white FBI agent on her case, Jack Soloman (Jack O’Connell) whose racial and sexual conflict strain his marriage (to Margaret Qualley). This narrative contrast reveals the filmmakers’ disposition (Shrapnel and Waterhouse wrote the fascinating 2016 film Race, about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which paralleled Jesse Owens with Leni Riefenstahl), but the pairing here seems unequal and, so, feels facile.
Despite Seberg’s international career, these European filmmakers can’t catch the warp and woof of American political life. The private motivations that caused Seberg to join the NAACP as a teenager and Jamal’s family connection to Malcolm X don’t come through. Scenes of Seberg in her striped Dior Breathless dress and Jamal’s tiger-striped shorts and beach shirt (the two glamorous ideologues seducing each other amid the paradox of Los Angeles–Hollywood high life) are more impressive than the rhetoric they babble. (She: “I want to be a part of that revolution.” He: “Education leads to understanding, understanding leads to love, love leads to unity.”)
This Seberg-martyr figure takes no responsibility for her imprudence, projects her victim self-image onto blacks, and blames others. The filmmakers don’t understand this reckless liberal type; they provide only sexual subtext.
The affair turns sour, and the Deep State’s menace leads to Seberg’s emotional breakdown (“They will destroy you, your reputation, your career, your family!”), challenging Agent Soloman’s empathy. The inevitable martyrdom, preceded by ugly paranoia (“Put in a ‘f*** wire.’ Hoover likes to hear the bedsprings”), drags the film toward useless resentment — not enlightenment about complex figures as seen in Race, but comfortable loathing of “the system.”
Stewart, though miscast physically and vocally, plays Seberg as a tearful enigma, which is inappropriate for the actress and ironic American icon of the French New Wave that we know. Seberg’s martyrdom is predetermined by the opening scene from her first movie, Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan, and the on-set accident that scarred her body. This simple-minded metaphor cheats Seberg of her cultural triumph—the later great, uncanny performances in Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse and especially Godard’s Breathless. Director Andrews restages a scene from Breathless — not just an inept error, a scandal! Godard already preempted this politically motivated biopic in Breathless when Seberg’s Patricia stared into the camera as she pondered the aperçu “To become immortal and then to die.”
When Godard made his second feature, Le Petit Soldat, he introduced the world to Anna Karina, his first wife. That film, just released on Criterion Blu-Ray, also introduced the concept of political poetry in its story of political assassin Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), who falls in love with Veronica Dreyer (Karina), a liberal sympathizer with the National Liberation Front faction of the Algerian war.
Forestier’s own political ambivalence, the humanity opposing his robotic professional commitment, allows Godard to begin his great, complex exploration of mankind’s — the artist’s — political contradictions. Le Petit Soldat concerns killing and torture as actions undertaken in political movements. Forestier also suffers for his spiritual yearning. When he ponders contrasting media images of terror and pop art that pervade his life like a dream, the visual tension is astonishing. And when he picks up a camera (instead of his gun) and takes photos of Veronica, the film gains an added dimension.
The beauty of Karina/Veronica, her personal mystery — and Godard’s fascination — go past martyrdom to cinematic immortality. Through the film noir flashback in Le Petit Soldat, everything happens within the shadow of political history. Godard’s perspective proved poetic and prophetic: “For me, the time for action has passed. I’m older now. The time for reflection begins.”