Seberg (out Friday in limited release) begins with a reenactment of a scene from Jean Seberg’s first movie, St. Joan (1957), in which Jean was accidentally injured by the flames while filming. Jean would often say later in life that she wished she really had been burnt at the stake— and symbolically she was, by the FBI. Seberg has good intentions, but ultimately fails to tell her story with the gravity and perception it deserves.
That story began in Marshalltown, Iowa, a small town much like any other in the Midwest. She was born there in 1938, the daughter of pharmacist Ed Seberg and his wife Dorothy. They were the kind of Scandinavian-American family who truly believed in the American Dream, in the possibility of success and generational class mobility rewarding a life of hard work. Jean was raised to be a lady, to develop talents and accomplishments with which she would one day win the heart of an acceptable husband.
Though she was popular in school, Jean never quite fit into her small community. Curiosity, sensitivity, and empathy defined the young girl who often rescued wild animals and wrote idealistic poetry. At the age of 14, she registered as a member of the NAACP, in spite of her father’s protests that “people might think she’s a communist.” The insular white community in which she grew up did not take kindly to her “radical” ideas about racial equality. Her sympathy with the struggle of black people from a young age would foreshadow her later political involvement.
At first, acting was only one of her diverse interests and extracurriculars, but by the end of high school Jean was determined to become a movie star. She had thrived in Carol Hollingsworth’s drama department at Marshalltown High School, in which she captivated audiences as the lead in Sabrina Fair. Her music teacher said that “most of us knew then that if she really wanted to pursue an acting career, she could make it.” And though she worried her parents with her romanticism and impracticality, she was determined to make it.
The summer after graduation, Jean interned at a theatre program at Cape Cod, where she met close friends and deepened her enthusiasm for acting. That fall director Otto Preminger would screen thousands of young actresses to star as Joan of Arc in his upcoming film, St. Joan. When Jean auditioned, she knew she was just one among the thousands, and had little chance of actually being chosen. But after several screen tests, Preminger concluded that although Jean was not the most experienced actress, she had the overall charm she was looking for.
St. Joan was not well received critically, and Jean’s acting was regarded especially contemptuously. Preminger was criticized for what was widely considered a “publicity stunt”– choosing an inexperienced, unknown actress– and for misinterpreting Shaw’s play. He was determined to prove that he was not mistaken when he saw great talent in Jean Seberg, however, and promptly cast her in his next film, Bonjour Tristesse; it received somewhat better reviews, but was still not considered a success. Jean was disheartened, viewing herself as a has-been before she was even 21, and wondered if she had any real talent as an actress after all. Her acting in St. Joan and Bonjour Tristesse does appear awkward and forced, but in films that followed — such as The Five-Day Lover, Lilith, and of course, Breathless — she is a dynamic and convincing presence, which makes one sympathetic to her claims later in life that Preminger’s cold and demanding manner crushed her creativity and did not allow her to put any of herself into her acting. Preminger was a harsh director who demanded perfection from his actors, screaming at and chastising them, with particular cruelty when it came to Jean Seberg.
Jean’s films had caught the attention of the writers and aspiring directors at the Cahiers du cinéma film journal, who led a transformation of French cinema. Jean-Luc Godard got in touch with her through François Moreuil (her first husband) and soon she was cast in his first feature film, Breathless (1960). Seaberg playsd Patricia, a young American woman living in Paris who sells the New York Herald Tribune and carries on affairs with men freely and without guilt; one such affair is with a macho, insensitive criminal named Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who models himself after Humphrey Bogart. “I don’t know if I’m not happy because I’m not free, or if I’m not free because I’m not happy,” her character tells Michel early on in the film, foreshadowing her own struggles with despair.
Seberg is best known for her role in this pioneering film of the French New Wave, in which themes of sexuality, existentialism, and morality (or rather, indifference to morality) are freely explored. Though her French was flagrantly accented and her knowledge of Paris embarrassingly limited (“What is the Champs?” she asks Belmondo, not realizing she’s walking on that very street), she fit in Godard’s vision of Paris as the kind of woman who embraced her existential freedom and refused to live in bad faith, who embraced life’s brutality– the knowing expression on her face in the film’s final scenes said all there was to know about her. Jean seemed a rising star, an idol of the French New Wave who was headed toward even greater cinematic endeavors.
In the following years, Jean would take on similar roles in French movies. In The Five-Day Lover (1961) she plays a fashion-obsessed young woman who carries on an affair with her best friend’s boyfriend, and In the French Style (1963), she’s an American student who loses her virginity while studying abroad in Paris and drifts into a life of aimless hedonism. These films, made as art and not simply as moral tales to warn against the danger of female sexuality, were somewhat shocking to her family and friends in Iowa. Jean also starred in La Récréation (1961), a film by her then-husband Moreuil, but by then they were estranged and she had fallen in love with the much older writer and diplomat Romain Gary; they carried on a long affair, and she secretly had a child, Diego, before they finally married in 1962.
Jean would return to the United States to act in a film that was altogether different from any she had done before. Lilith (1964) was the story of a young therapist, Vincent (Warren Beatty), who falls in love with a patient named Lilith (Jean Seberg) in a psychiatric hospital. Loosely based on a figure in Jewish mythology, Lilith wavers in and out of insanity, seeming at one moment completely lucid, and another in her own unreachable world. In preparation for this film, Jean and her co-stars went on a field trip to an actual psychiatric hospital. Jean became fascinated by mental illness, and would remain so for the rest of her life.
While working in Los Angeles, Jean met Hakim Jamal, an eccentric black nationalist who ran an organization called the Malcolm X Foundation in Compton;along with his wife Dorothy Jamal (a distant relative of Malcolm X), he ran a nursery whose aim was to provide a nurturing environment for black children. Jean, horrified by the apathy of white Americans and enthusiastic about Jamal’s efforts, had few reservations about offering him enormous sums of money and dedicating much of her time to volunteer at the nursery.
Jamal’s politics were adjacent to those of the Black Panthers, but he had his differences with the party. He was largely a man on his own, a theatrical orator who would preach to anyone who would listen. As a friend said of him, “His main point was that the white man gives you only what’s bad for you– drugs– never meat and potatoes, which are good for you. But sometimes he’d say the weirdest things to get up against your head.” Seberg presents him as far more influential than he was, and mainly focuses on Jean’s sexual relationship with Jamal. Though their political collaboration did develop into a romantic affair, its influence on Jean’s support for the black struggle is exaggerated in a way that it was troublingly and consistently throughout her life. Seemingly sympathetic to Jean in her persecution by the FBI, the film still knowingly or not perpetuates the myth that her sexuality preceded her genuine convictions, which was essentially the charge the FBI smeared her with. Jean eventually became more sympathetic to the Black Panthers and redirected her support, primarily but not exclusively financial, to them. She became a close contact of the Panthers and one of their most dedicated white supporters, known among them as “Arisa.”
While filming Macho Callahan (1970) in Durango, Mexico, Jean became involved in the radical student movement of the time, and met a young lover among the activists. Because of timing, it is believed she became pregnant with his child. Seizing the opportunity to defame a well-known actress who supported “dangerous black radicals,” the FBI began a smear campaign about the paternity of her baby that portrayed her as a “sex pervert” (in the words of an FBI memorandum) who was only interested in the struggle for black liberation because she had a “sexual obsession” with black men. Newsweek printed an article that read, “She (Jean Seberg) and French author Romain Gary, 56, are reportedly about to remarry even though the baby… is by another man, a black activist she met in California.” The FBI, it was later revealed, fully intended to ruin her life and career: “Headquarters also said, ‘Jean Seberg has been a financial supporter of the BPP and should be neutralized. Her current pregnancy by [name deleted] while still married affords an opportunity for such effort.’” On August 23, 1970, her daughter Nina Hart Gary was born. She died two days later.
Jean would always blame the FBI’s harassment for Nina’s death, and with good reason. She drifted into a life of drinking, abuse of prescription drugs, and lapses into psychosis. She could never shake the suspicion that she was being followed by people in the shadows. She replaced her old friends with drug addicts and people she met in psychiatric hospitals, and married a young man named Dennis Berry, with whom she had a rocky relationship;they separated several times. She attempted suicide repeatedly, usually on the anniversary of Nina’s death. Eventually she succeeded. On September 8, 1979, her body was found near the Paris apartment she shared with a lover named Ahmed Hasni, decomposing next to a bottle of barbiturates.
Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Jean Seberg is convincing enough, and it’s a good thing if this movie renews attention to her story. But Seberg has several faults that this alone cannot overcome. The dialogue is often awkward, and Jean fails to come to life as a dynamic character. The people that surround her– Black Panthers, actors, writers, and directors– are also little more than hollow caricatures. It humanizes the “good” FBI agent (a fictional character) at the expense of the truth. Nothing is added to the movie by the invention of a subplot about the moral conflicts and marital problems of a man involved in a project to silence activists and black Americans by any means necessary.
Some people have said that the tragedy of Jean Seberg’s life began “the day a little girl from Iowa decided to become a movie star.” I disagree; to act should not be inherently dehumanizing. If she had been thoughtless and apathetic, she could have led a long and happy life. She was condemned to tragedy when she dared to defy the white America that raised her, and came to know firsthand its brutality.