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‘Seberg’ review: Kristen Stewart can’t save superficial biopic of New Wave icon

Director Benedict Andrews and actress Kristen Stewart arrive at the premiere of their new film “Seberg,” screened as part of the London Film Festival in central London on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. (Joel C. Ryan / Invision/AP)
Director Benedict Andrews and actress Kristen Stewart arrive at the premiere of their new film “Seberg,” screened as part of the London Film Festival in central London on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. (Joel C. Ryan / Invision/AP)
By Robert Abele Chicago Tribune

If “Breathless” star Jean Seberg hadn’t existed, a hard-boiled novelist would have had to invent her – a glittering Hollywood/New Wave icon of modern style and civil rights outspokenness who survived a gantlet of male impresarios only to be laid low by FBI smear tactics harsher than any showbiz gossip monger’s.

And in Benedict Andrews’ color-saturated, fever-dream biopic “Seberg,” Kristen Stewart’s knife’s-edge allure helps cut straight to what was lonely, searching and defiant in Seberg as she began an affair with Black Panther revolutionary Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) that, as dramatized here, triggered spiteful surveillance from one crass, judgmental fed (Vince Vaughn) and stalker-ish protectiveness in a younger colleague (Jack O’Connell).

It’s difficult, however, to latch on to Seberg’s tragic descent as star, do-gooder, wife, lover or mother when the overwrought and retro-fantastic movie around Stewart plays like an ad for a perfume called Paranoia as conceived by a soap opera writing staff (Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse are the credited screenwriters).

Nothing against cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s period panache, but it only ever feels like a gloss, not a coloring, and Zazie Beetz’s role as Jamal’s wife Dorothy is so thankless it’s tempting to read her disappointment face as, “This is how we have to get the Panthers depicted in a major movie?”

By the end, Stewart is enough of a force to give Seberg’s darkest moments their due, but it’s too little, too late for the superficial soup that is the movie that bears her name.

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