SEBERG (2020)

May 15, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Who is Jean Seberg?” A reporter asks the question to her, just before the movie star’s agent escorts him away as she prepares for publicity shots on PAINT YOUR WAGON, the outlandish 1969 musical-comedy in which she co-starred with Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. It’s also a question we expect a film entitled SEBERG to answer, though it never really does. Oh sure, we get the basics: small town girl (Marshalltown, Iowa), Hollywood starlet, activist, target of FBI, and tragic ending. Unwisely, the film tries to cram in too many other pieces of a puzzle – a puzzle plenty interesting on its own.

Kristen Stewart stars as Jean Seberg, the breakout star of the French New Wave Cinema in Jean-Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS (1960). Ms. Stewart brings much more than a short haircut to the role. It’s not a stretch to imagine Ms. Stewart has experienced some of the downside to fame that Ms. Seberg experienced during her career, so it’s no surprise that the moments of torment and frustration and anxiety are the film’s best. Even as a teenager in Iowa, Ms. Seberg showed signs of an activist-in-development. She ran off to Hollywood and was discovered by director Otto Preminger and cast in the lead role for his SAINT JOAN (1957). Seberg actually suffered severe burns during the filming of a key scene – one which is reenacted by Stewart for this film.

Director Benedict Andrews working with a script from Joe Shrapnel (grandson of actress Deborah Kerr) and Anna Waterhouse (they also co-wrote THE AFTERMATH and RACE), focuses mostly on the period of 1968-1971. We see Seberg’s first encounter with Hakim Abdullah Jamal (Anthony Mackie) on a commercial flight, and her follow-up pose with the Black Panthers for a publicity shot on the tarmac. This kicks off an FBI investigation, as well as an affair between Seberg (married to novelist and filmmaker Romain Gary, played by Yvan Attal) and Jamal (married to Dorothy, played by Zazie Beetz). We see how Seberg landed on Hoover’s FBI watch list, and how she was sincerely trying to help what she saw as a worthy cause.

We watch the FBI meticulously build a file on Seberg, albeit illegally under the COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program) program. Surveillance was used to work towards their goal of running a smear campaign against Seberg due to her support of the Black Panther Party. Jack O’Connell plays FBI Agent Jack Solomon, and Vince Vaughan plays his partner Carl Kowalski. Family dinner time at the Kowalski home is anything but leisurely fun, and it’s an unnecessary scene meant to contrast Kowalski’s character with that of Solomon. It’s here where the film falters. An inordinate amount of time is spent on Agent Solomon and his conscience and his med-student wife Linette (a sinfully underutilized Margaret Qualley).

The film would have been best served by focusing on either Seberg or Solomon. The two stories dilute the effectiveness, and beyond that, the Black Panther story line fades, as does the whole celebrity-as-an-activist subplot. Instead, Seberg’s breakdown and Solomon’s second thoughts share center-stage. The film does succeed in exposing the extremes Hoover’s organization would go to in order to discredit someone whose beliefs might not have meshed with what was deemed proper for the times. What happened to Seberg was a tragedy, and according to Mr. Gary, led to the loss of her career and eventually to her death.

The film bounces from Paris to Los Angeles, and the set decorations and costumes are picture perfect for the era. There are actual Black Panther clips shown, and Ms. Stewart also reenacts a scene from BREATHLESS. Regardless of the script and story issues, Kristen Stewart delivers a terrific performance as Jean Seberg, and keeps our attention the entire time. We like her and feel for her as she slips. The real Ms. Seberg was found dead in a car at age 40, and suicide was suspected, though mystery still surrounds her death to this day. Lastly, just a piece of free advice … if you are looking to do good things in life, having a marital affair is rarely the right first step.

Available on Amazon Prime beginning May 15, 2020

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THE AFTERMATH (2019)

March 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1945 on the heels of the Allied forces victory in WWII. British officer Lewis Morgan is charged with overseeing the military’s role in beginning the process of returning a sense of normalcy back to Hamburg (and assisting with hunting Nazi loyalists). He is joined there by his wife Rachel, and they are to occupy a beautiful mansion that has been “requisitioned” from a German architect and his daughter. Captain Morgan makes the unusual offer of having the man and his daughter remain in the house, rather than relocate to one of the dreadful camps, where food and privacy is scarce. Here’s a tip gentlemen: never invite Alexander Skarsgard to live in the same house as your significant other.

Captain Morgan is played by Jason Clarke, and his wife Rachel by Keira Knightley. The aforementioned Skarsgard is Stephen Lubert, and Flora Thieman plays Freda, his rebellious teenage daughter. On her train ride in, Rachel hears a young girl discussing the rule of “no fraternizing” with the German people. Of course, we know (even if Rachel doesn’t know yet) that it’s not the little girl who is going to break this rule. An awkward reunion for Morgan and his wife indicates something is amiss. We soon learn that their young son was killed 4 years prior in a bombing – a hardship they share with Mr. Lubert, whose wife was also killed during the war. Clearly the loss of her son still impacts Rachel to the point that she rarely finds a moment of happiness.

If this was a “Seinfeld” episode, this is where ‘yada, yada, yada’ would be inserted, letting us know that a tryst between Lubert and Rachel occurs while husband Morgan is out on duty, and that romp brings her instantly back to life … with smiles and piano playing. This little lovefest is contrasted with the rubble of Hamburg. The city is literally in ruins. The visuals are impressive, but we never get a feel for the challenge of rebuilding infrastructure and lives. Instead, we get more forbidden love.

Director James Kent is known mostly for his TV work, and the film is based on the novel by Rhidian Brook, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. It would be a mistake to assume, given the outstanding three lead actors, that this is a prestigious WWII drama. An accurate description would be ‘soap opera.’ The set design, costumes, and cast are first rate, but the direction, script, and editing scream soap opera. I believe my final count was 12. That’s 12 shots of someone gazing out of a window … train windows, car windows, house windows, bus windows … every window gets its shot of winsome gazing. It’s best you know going in to expect a soap opera … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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