The actress' take on the French New Wave icon's troubled life has earned significant praise at the Venice Film Festival, though critics are split on the film overall.

By Joey Nolfi
August 30, 2019 at 05:18 PM EDT
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Kristen Stewart‘s physical and emotional transformation into the pixie-haired, ill-fated actress Jean Seberg has courted some of the best reviews of the Twilight star’s career, even if critics aren’t entirely sold on the movie built around her leading performance.

The 29-year-old fronts Una director Benedict Andrews‘ upcoming political thriller Seberg, which chronicles the French New Wave star’s turbulent life in the crosshairs of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI surveillance program COINTELPRO, which tracked the Breathless performer’s support for the Black Panther Party and her relationship with civil rights activist (and cousin of Malcolm X), Hakim Jamal, throughout the late 1960s.

Early reviews for the project — which held its world-premiere screening Friday at the awards-positioning Venice Film Festival — have largely praised the humanity Stewart brings to the actress’ persona, with TIME‘s Stephanie Zacharek observing that Stewart and Seberg “meld into one bold, shimmering presence” in the “potent and engaging” film.

“Stewart is off the charts, though that’s hardly a surprise. She’s among the greatest actresses of our day, though to call her ‘great’ does a disservice to her subtlety — maybe it’s better to call her the master of the small gesture,” she writes. “The flicker of her eyelids is a dialect unto itself.”

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Writing for The Daily Beast, Marlow Stern similarly praises Stewart in the role, though he feels the material at her disposal isn’t on the same level as her talents — especially as it’s framed through Jack O’Connell’s Solomon, a COINTELPRO agent, continuing that the “optics are cloudy enough, what with a rich, white Hollywood actress held up as the tragic victim of COINTELPRO — when a studio film or miniseries (Michael B. Jordan as Huey Newton, please) on the actual Black Panthers has yet to be produced.”

Still, he observes: “Stewart expertly captures the mounting psychological toll, this paragon of glamour with the pixie hair reduced to violent paroxysms of paranoia and suspicion. Few actresses can command a close-up like Stewart, whose vulnerability all but bursts through the screen.”

The Guardian‘s Xan Brooks and Variety‘s Guy Lodge agree.

“Stewart’s a fabulous actor, as demonstrated in Personal Shopper, Certain Women, any number of others, and she sets about this role with a grim determination that’s admirable in and of itself. What lets her down is the by-numbers plotting, together with the sort of flat, declamatory dialogue that might have been lifted from a teen-magazine photo story. She says, ‘I want to make a difference’ and ‘I’ve been running from that girl my whole life.’ She says, ‘I’m funding the Panthers,’ just to be absolutely sure that we’re all up to speed,'” writes Brooks, while Lodge adds: “Kristen Stewart’s subtle, enigmatic performance as the ill-fated starlet merits a thornier screenplay than this smooth biopic-cum-espionage drama provides.”

Making the film, Stewart previously told EW she felt the presence of the late actress — who died by suicide in 1979 after a long struggle with depression — on the film’s eerie set.

“Whenever you do a movie about a real person — especially if they’re no longer living — [it feels] like that thing where, if someone passes away, you wonder if they can see you pick your nose or something…. You wonder: Are they overlooking? I just played Jean Seberg, and [I would feel it] every single time there was a cat that would run through the frame!” Stewart said of the production’s vibe. “I always wondered if we were doing things right…. In this weird fantasy world, I became so close to her in my own little psyche of making this movie. If she [would’ve been able to] walk into a room, I would [feel] like a sister, or if someone said a bad word about her I’d [defend her] like, ‘Hey! She existed!” like I knew her. Anything that would happen on set that was a little eerie, I always attributed it to her!”

Seberg — which next travels to the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival in September — is expected to hit theaters this fall, though an exact release date has yet to be announced. Read on for more reviews of the film out of the 2019 Venice Film Festival, which runs through Sept. 7.

Stephanie Zacharek (TIME)
“Stewart plays Seberg as a woman full of life— she’s keeping Jean alive for us for the moments we’re able to watch her on-screen, and that time is precious. Stewart isn’t an impersonator or a mimic, which is why, in the early moments of Seberg, I found her a little wrong. Even with her perfectly bleached hair, and even though she’d perfected that elusive Sebergian half-pout, I looked at her and could see only Stewart, bold and brave in her stammering way. A little later, I saw how wrong I was. As an actor, Stewart is a vessel, not the driver of a vehicle. She didn’t “learn” Seberg; she opened herself up to this sad, lost woman, allowing her to rush in, to fill every channel and vein. Stewart hears the language of ghosts, and she translates it for us. The words are all there, finding their way out through the light in her eyes.”

David Ehrlich (IndieWire)
“Sometimes clever, often clumsy, and virtually always denying Kristen Stewart the space required to breathe new life into the film’s namesake, Seberg feels off-balance from almost the moment it starts. A short prologue, set on the day Seberg was almost burned alive while shooting Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan, casts a palpably dark shadow over the events to come, but Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse’s labored script forces the scene to carry too much weight. The rest of the film makes plenty of time for Seberg to throw shade at Paint Your Wagon and lament the relative irrelevance of her own work, but these few seconds — in which Seberg is nearly killed for pretending to be a real martyr — provide our only meaningful evidence that she wanted more from life…. Everything comes to feel inauthentic, to the point where Seberg only comes to life when it commits to full-bore theatricality. Andrews is an accomplished stage director whose Una was an arrestingly choreographed masterclass in sustained claustrophobia, and there are flashes in Seberg — a tense moment in the Solomon house; a bit of hide-and-seek between Seberg and Jamal — when the blocking expresses a vitality that the writing never does. But Andrews is lost at sea whenever things widen out, and his keen eye can’t save this woebegotten movie from its own shapelessness. Bonjour tristesse, indeed.”

David Rooney (The Hollywood Reporter)
“A fascinating historical footnote tracing the intersection between late-1960s Hollywood and iniquitous American government meddling is explored in director Benedict Andrews’ involving second feature, Seberg. This sleek, pleasurably glossy thriller chronicles the FBI’s sustained efforts to neutralize actress Jean Seberg as she became a supporter of the Black Panther Party and other civil rights groups. The script doesn’t always avoid canned sloganeering, and the pacing could be tighter. But as the gamine with the pixie cut immortalized on the poster for Godard’s Breathless, the luminous Kristen Stewart keeps you glued throughout, giving a coolly compelling performance that becomes steadily more poignant as the subject unravels.”

Guy Lodge (Variety)
“‘Who is Jean Seberg?’ a reporter asks the eponymous movie star midway through Seberg, attempting to close a puffy promotional interview for Paint Your Wagon with some semblance of personal insight. She doesn’t get to answer, as Seberg’s publicist swiftly calls time on the question: ‘Let’s just keep it about the movie,’ he instructs. It’s one of many moments in Benedict Andrews’ slick, diverting portrait in which Seberg is shown to be treated as a product, a pawn or a patsy, handled by men in their own best interests rather than hers. And yet Seberg does something a little similar to that protective publicist: Every time it threatens to truly pierce the psyche of its subject, played with typically intriguing, elusory intelligence by Kristen Stewart, the more ordinary mechanics of the movie she’s serving get in the way.”

Marlow Stern (The Daily Beast)
“The government’s relentless persecution of Seberg — for the mere ‘crime’ of donating to the Black Panthers — eventually causes the actress to unravel, resulting in suicide attempts and a stillbirth. Stewart expertly captures the mounting psychological toll, this paragon of glamour with the pixie hair reduced to violent paroxysms of paranoia and suspicion. Few actresses can command a close-up like Stewart, whose vulnerability all but bursts through the screen. It is such a shame, then, that Andrews’ film has chosen to view Seberg’s plight through the eyes of Solomon, a COINTELPRO agent who grows protective of his prey. Solomon — who is a fictional character — provides a counterpoint to Vaughn’s racist, unapologetic Kowalski (a role he was born to play, really) and the other Bureau bigwigs who delight in throwing around the N-word to describe Jamal and the other Black Panthers. The optics are cloudy enough, what with a rich, white Hollywood actress held up as the tragic victim of COINTELPRO — when a studio film or miniseries (Michael B. Jordan as Huey Newton, please) on the actual Black Panthers has yet to be produced — but to then have one of Hoover’s attack dogs serve as the audience’s “noble” stand-in, well, that’s a bridge too far.”

Xan Brooks (The Guardian)
“No doubt there’s a brilliant tragic drama to be made about the life of Seberg, who spoke out for civil rights, supported the Black Panthers and was duly dragged through the mud by J Edgar Hoover’s FBI. But it emphatically isn’t Benedict Andrews’ bantamweight biopic, a tale of shadowy US history that feels machine-tooled and suspect and is shot with the hyper-real lighting one normally finds in a photographer’s studio or shopping mall. It tells us that Seberg was wronged and that she looked really great in a bra – and not necessarily in that order.”

Fionnuala Halligan (Screen Daily)
“The sad unravelling of iconic, socially-conscious actress Jean Seberg at the hands of Hoover’s FBI proves a quietly involving story and a visually interesting collaboration between director Benedict Andrews (Una) and his star Kristen Stewart. Seberg somehow manages to pull off a tricky combination of radical politics, inter-racial sex and Hollywood tragedy while styling Stewart in Chanel. It’s quite a balancing act, but this is a film in which the story is just about strong enough to pull that heavy cart along.”

Alonso Duralde (The Wrap)
“And while Seberg is rarely as great as its lead actress, the film does shed light on a tragic corner of American history that’s not discussed nearly enough — the U.S. citizens who had their lives shattered by J. Edgar Hoover’s secret COINTELPRO (counter intelligence program) surveillance that targeted anyone the FBI considered ‘subversive,’ be they Vietnam War protesters, black or indigenous activists, even environmentalists…. Stewart never attempts to completely impersonate Jean Seberg — she eschews the late actress’ flat Midwestern vowels — but at certain points in the film, and at certain angles, she’s a dead ringer. What Stewart does capture, more importantly, is the spark in Seberg’s eyes; she also knows how to turn off that spark, which adds additional heartbreak to the later scenes of a despairing, suicidal Seberg.”

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