The Posthumous Phenomenology of the Star Biopic: Kristen Stewart as Jean Seberg

Friday, May 26 •  – 2keynote speech

This paper will examine the posthumous phenomenological encounters that occur through the experience of a star biopic by analyzing the film Seberg (dir. Benedict Andrews, 2019), in which Kristen Stewart portrays the actor Jean Seberg. There are clear physical differences between the two actors, in terms of facial features, physicality, gestures, speech patterns and comportment. There is also the inevitably jarring presence of anachronistic aesthetics and extra-textual connotations that occur when a person from the past is conjured up in a contemporary piece of filmmaking, played by a modern star, with costume and cosmetics that stand apart from the historical images and footage of the star subject. Nevertheless, Seberg is an affecting and moving depiction of Jean Seberg, that not only conveys a period in her life which was challenging and traumatic, but also evokes her experience of sexism within the film industry, the frustrations of her professional and personal life, and her perspective on the surveillance under which the FBI placed her in order to discredit her and nullify her potential political influence.

Approaching Seberg with an orientation towards the phenomenological experience it offers enables a consideration of how such star biopics work. They evoke and conjure, resurrect and revive, and present a work of fiction designed to convince us that we are witnessing the living star. This merits close consideration as it is in many ways a peculiar offering: we might suppose that the standard of suspension of disbelief required to immerse ourselves in the film would be higher than with standard fiction fare. And yet, the appeal of the biopic not only endures but apparently increases (Rocketman; Bohemian Rhapsody; Blonde; I, Tonya; Elvis).

I will suggest that a way to understand how the biopic works is to focus on aesthetic phenomenology: the appearance of the film we see and our experiences of it, affected by our familiarity with the subject of the biopic itself and the star who plays them. I will examine Stewart and Seberg in relation to Vivian Sobchack’s descriptive schema of the actor’s “four bodily modes of being”: Prepersonal, Personal, Impersonated, and Personified. This will enable us to explore the resonances and dissonances, or perfect/imperfect fits (pace Richard Dyer), between Stewart and Seberg, and how these affect, construct and undermine our phenomenological encounter with Jean Seberg through the film Seberg.

Delegates are invited to view these two clips in advance of the paper.

An Interview with Jean Seberg:

Kristen Stewart Jean Seberg scenes:

GB 🇬🇧 • Reader in Film Studies, Queen Mary University of London FP || Full bio

Lucy Bolton is Reader in Film Studies at Queen Mary University of London. She specializes in film philosophy and film stardom, and is currently writing a monograph that brings these fields together, called Philosophy and Film Stardom: Ethics, Aesthetics, Phenomenologies.


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