“A man lit a fire and put me on it,” actress Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) curtly tells her lover, activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), in “Seberg,” a flawed and fascinating film about fame and martyrdom. She’s explaining the burn scars she suffered while playing Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger’s “Saint Joan” (1957), but the comment could as easily serve as this movie’s tagline.
Conflagration is a recurring motif. “You’re playing with fire,” Jamal warns, knowing the FBI will notice her generous donations to civil rights causes and her association with the Black Panther movement. The year is 1968, and Seberg has left her home in Paris — as well as her husband, writer Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), and their young son — to come to Los Angeles to audition for “Paint Your Wagon.” Her Black Power salute at the airport draws immediate attention, as does her nighttime visit to Jamal’s home in Compton wearing an arresting minidress and driving a sunshine-yellow convertible. Her actions seem less deliberately provocative than politically ingenuous, those of a woman unaware that her support for African-American rights will lead to the thorough violation of her own.
Though inspired by real life, “Seberg,” directed by Benedict Andrews, isn’t a biopic. It’s a distressing, sometimes distracted portrait of a woman haunted and hounded, shamed and surveilled to the point of complete mental collapse. We see and hear virtually nothing of her early life or her movies, of the small-town Iowa native who became a star of the French New Wave at 21 and died at 40, overcome by barbiturates. Instead, Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel’s script spends too much time observing Seberg’s fictional and ultimately conscience-stricken nemesis, FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), whose spying and harassment will send her into emotional free fall.
Despite its wearying preoccupation with FBI mischief and Solomon’s softening toward his target, “Seberg” has an old-fashioned glamour that can on occasion take your breath away. The styling and production design are impeccable, and Rachel Morrison’s radiant cinematography is as beguiling as Stewart’s performance. Glowing beneath Seberg’s famous blond pixie cut, confident yet fragile, she’s a picture of gorgeous disintegration. Andrews might have diluted her point of view and blurred his film’s focus, but when his star has his undivided attention, he knows how to set up a scene. Watch her pace nervously in her fishbowl of a house, dressed in a silk peignoir and clutching a drink, an irresistible target for anyone with a mind to stalk or photograph.
Late in the movie, there’s one long, perfect shot — a rapturous synchronicity of sound and vision — where we see Seberg walk toward the camera on her husband’s arm while Scott Walker’s “It’s Raining Today” croons prophetically on the soundtrack. The song mourns a lover who’s already the fading memory that Seberg will become, and it seems to be saying we should have watched her more closely while we still could.
★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for sex, spying and unidentified substances.