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French director Bruno Dumont is nothing if not an iconoclast, so it’s no surprise when he tries something new. Not one but two rock musicals inspired by the life of Joan of Arc? Sure. Crazy comedy? Dour drama? Or both at once if it’s for TV? Check, check and check. Explosive violence? Explicit sex? Raw realism? If you want it, at least one of Dumont’s films has got it. Perhaps the single throughline in his body of work is that it is always uncompromising and intense.
His latest feature, simply titled France, feels like something truly unexpected. The film is a glossy yet relatively cold examination of a famous TV presenter in crisis with uneasy hints of what could be satire. More often than not, the staging feels conventional rather than uncompromising. The tone is rarely intense. On the contrary, it is hard to figure out what Dumont’s vision really was for this work.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Léa Seydoux, Benjamin Biolay, Blanche Gardin, Emanuele Arioli, Jawad Zemmar
Writer-director: Bruno Dumont
Because it stars Bond girl and international star Léa Seydoux, some distributors will want to take a look. But for such a high-powered auteur/leading-lady collaboration, France feels decidedly unspectacular.
Seydoux is France de Meurs — the first name refers to the country of course, her last name sounds like “demeure,” which means “remains” — a news journalist and TV host who’s extremely popular. It’s unclear where she stands politically and suggests herself, when asked directly, that perhaps it doesn’t mater. But she is still the one asking the (supposedly) difficult questions, as in the opening, in which the current French president, Emmanuel Macron, cameos (previously existing footage was used) when he needs to tackle a question from France, seated in the front row.
Indeed, France often likes to insert herself into her news items on her own TV show as a way to get people to relate to the material, or so she thinks. In reality she seems more like a superficial millennial trying to get in as much selfie-time with her plagued subjects as possible. There isn’t a seaborne refugee, fleeing inhabitant of a war-torn nation or leader of an anti-Daesh militia that’s not suitable for France’s biased questions and emotional asides. Why does she do all this? Because, no doubt, it must be great to be recognized everywhere and asked by people to be featured in their selfies.
But lately, France has been depressed and things take a turn for the worse when she hits a poor man (Jawad Zemmar) on a scooter with her car and people immediately recognize her and start filming them with their phones. It’s a turning point for the incredibly rich celebrity, as she plunges into a kind of existential crisis when she becomes the subject of news items herself, suffering from what other terrible journalists write about her.
What’s odd is that Dumont, who also wrote the script, keeps a certain distance from his subject throughout the film and Seydoux only rarely manages to bridge that distance. Some elements are clearly exaggerated or at least unrealistic, such as the fact that France not only prepares and presents her daily news program but also seems to direct and produce and star in all her content by herself, as she only has one in-studio assistant, the yes-woman Lou (comedian Blanche Gardin, who seems to be acting in a more comedic take on the material). His portrayal of the French media landscape also feels at least a tad antiquated, focusing as it does on broadcast TV and gossip print magazines, with the Internet and social media — and the way in which they have propelled so many changes within the media landscape — only occasionally hinted at.
But if the portrayal of the media and how they work don’t feel accurate, France’s home life with her boring novelist husband (Benjamin Biolay at his most dour) and their kid son, for example, plays like a pretty straightforward (if not all that involving) drama. But then their apartment on the very exclusive Place des Vosges feels less like a celebrity home and more like the vestibule of the Louvre as designed by Yves Saint Laurent, in terms of how many priceless artworks and designer frills it contains. What is Dumont trying to say here? That France has no taste but knows that art is what rich people buy? That there’s a dissonance between the boring quotidian details of her life and the eternal beauty of the art pieces that surround her? That she is making more money than she needs or deserves? France never even comments on her own home, so the messaging here is muddled at best.
This lack of clear readability when it comes to what Dumont wants to say extends to the tone of the film. Certainly he is interested in suggesting that the media aren’t necessarily in the business of faithfully reporting the truth. But like the suggestion that it doesn’t matter which way France leans politically — yet Dumont still wants to suggest that she’s prone to asking biased questions — it is hard to have it both ways. On top of that, more often than not, it is impossible to tell the difference between what is intentional satire and what could actually be an accurate portrayal of the out-of-whack way in which the media and the world at large seem to function today.
There’s an impressive car-crash sequence that should have an emotionally devastating impact on the protagonist but that’s shot with the familiar visual language and editing tricks of car commercials and the Fast & Furious franchise. Is Dumont making a statement about the media (and cinema’s) capacity to commodify every single tragedy for money? Or is he just filming a car crash anno 2021? It’s impossible to tell.
Perhaps it is precisely Dumont’s point that satire and the real world have been converging for a long time, but this alone is not enough insight to sustain a movie that’s over two hours long and contains a protagonist few will warm to. France is finally a superficial creature in what Dumont seems to suggest is a superficial business. And it’s not pleasant to spend two hours with someone with no redeeming qualities other than looking good with red lipstick and designer outfits on. France is all dressed up, but where’s she going?
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: 3B Productions, Arte France Cinema, Scope Pictures
Cast: Lea Seydoux, Benjamin Biolay, Blanche Gardin, Emanuele Arioli, Jawad Zemmar
Writer-Director: Bruno Dumont
Producers: Jean Brehat, Muriel Merlin, Rachid Bouchareb
Cinematography: David Chambille
Production design: Erwan Le Gall
Costume design: Alexandra Charles
Editing: Nicolas Bier
Casting: Clement Morelle
Sales: Indie Sales
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