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Five Cent Cine: Seberg

Star power in Stewart; cardboard bad guys

A better title for this biopic about Jean Seberg, who became an icon of French New Wave cinema in Jean Luc-Godard’s 1960 “Breathless,” would be “Seberg and Me.” The “me” is a fictional FBI agent who targeted Seberg, surveilled her relentlessly, and came to rue his role in tormenting the American-born actress.

Kristen Stewart is credible as the strong and determined Seberg, who willfully participates in the black power movement of the late 1960s. Yet “Seberg” never adequately brings to life the true story that deserves to be told, of a ruthless government bent on destroying one of its own citizens.

‘Seberg’ is part of a cinematic history of governments and people spying on and taping each other.

“Seberg” is part of a cinematic history of governments and people spying on and taping each other, especially related to sex, and usually involving a change of heart, including “The Conversation” (1974), “Sex, Lies and Videotape” (1989), and “Bad Times at the El Royale” (2018). Unlike these films, “Seberg” doesn’t work.

Despite Stewart’s strength as an actress, it’s difficult to care deeply for a character who’s neither fragile nor vulnerable nor easily manipulated; whether sleeping with a black radical or funding the Black Panthers, she’s an agent of her own destiny. The problem of identification is deepened by Stewart’s cold screen persona, familiar to audiences from other roles (“Personal Shopper” [2016], “Clouds of Sils Maria” [2014]). Stewart’s character—and its impact on the film—resembles that of Emma Thompson as the talk show host in “Late Night” (2019), a box-office disappointment.

Jack O’Connell, depicting FBI agent Jack Solomon, also misses the mark. His initial technical skill and enthusiasm transform late in the film into non-credible actions motivated by an awakened empathy for his target. His fellow FBI agents, including one played by Vince Vaughan, are cardboard bad guys. Seberg’s older husband Romain Gary (Yvan Attal)—in many scenes yet incapable of communicating with his wife—is cardboard French.

The presentation of the black power movement is two-dimensional as well. There’s only a hint that the Black Panthers could have had a threatening or violent side. The character through whom we see the black power movement, a sympathetic Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie)—a real life cousin of Malcolm X—emphasizes breakfasts for children, the importance of “self worth,” getting along with one another and, of interest to the FBI, his desire to sleep with Seberg. The couple, even though both are committing adultery and ruining their respective marriages, are shown as equal and loving partners.

The writers use sex effectively as a test of morality: to portray Seberg’s promiscuity empathetically; to give FBI agent Solomon a soul; and to foreground the FBI’s despicable interventions into private lives.

“Seberg” has star power in Stewart, but little else to recommend it. It takes an interesting subject with relevance and fails to infuse it with the passion it deserves.

Date: 2019

2 Stars (out of four)

Director: Benedict Andrews

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Vince Vaughan, Anthony Mackie, Yvan Attal.

UK/US production

Runtime: 102 minutes

​​​Playing at Dipson’s Eastern Hills Mall

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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