Bruno Dumont’s monumentally titled France takes the director’s search for spiritual transcendence amidst everyday violence into a new zone of satiric melodrama. Having taken a sledgehammer to one of the key national myths in his Jeannette/Jeanne diptych, including an iconoclastic takedown of Dreyer (cinema’s saint, surely), where could he go except France? Armed with a rubber-faced Léa Seydoux, the pair use her image to mock — but never too viciously — the ills of their increasingly technocratic nation.
Seydoux plays France de Meurs, the country’s top TV news anchor. A belovedly empathetic figure who isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions of top brass or leap into the firing line to get the top stories to her viewers, France would appear to be the ideal woman. President Emmanuel Macron illustrates this in the first scene, appearing as a Forrest Gump style cut-in at a press conference to be embarrassed by France’s assertion that he is either “heedless or powerless.”
But the perfect facade of France shows some cracks. Her older husband, Fred (Benjamin Biolay), who has recently published an “essay-novel,” fishes for compliments at dinner and seems uniquely uninterested in France as a sexual or intellectual equal. Their son, Jo (Gaëtan Amiel), is a spoiled brat who appears like Wednesday Addams with a screen addiction. He hints at the generational conflict that Dumont backgrounds in his attempt to capture modern anxiety. While Dumont’s recent films have focused on the political conflict between idealistic youth and harsh adulthood, the character of France represents a middle-ground.
That is, until she drives into the back of a motorcyclist, rear-ending the young man in a nod to Dumont’s Twentynine Palms. The biker, Baptiste (a striking Jawad Zemmar) isn’t too badly injured, but the smell of a scandal is enough to throw France off her game. Baptiste’s parents tell her, “it’s an honor for us” — presumably to see their son mutilated by such a star. There’s a certain Bonfire of the Vanities spin to this, but Seydoux’s Master of the Universe, instead of running from her sins, embraces them as another side of her image that can be exploited. “I’ve never given to charity, so I could give one day to someone close,” she says, echoing the liberal-do gooder scam artistry of Kim Kardashian’s Black Lives Matter posing, or any number of personalities getting ahead of an issue with their own wellness-driven stories.
France, it seems, is unable to have an emotional breakthrough unless it’s on camera. And even so, this film still asserts the dominance of TV news over social media and the Internet. The latter is only mentioned as something you shouldn’t go on, and through the presence of smartphone cameras. An on-air debate with a politician results in him calling her a hypocritical demagogue, saying “We both want numbers.” If that wasn’t enough, he calls her, “useful but pretty.” She soon leaves the business, but can’t get away from her own celebrity image. She cries when she volunteers at a soup kitchen, deservedly getting mocked by the homeless guys just there to pick up an apple. Soon, she’s in a rehab center in the Swiss Alps, and on and on the film winds through France’s journey of self-discovery. She is looking for God, but it’s hard when your image is everywhere, and you are literally France. At this point, France falls into cliched self-pity, and at such a slow pace, too.
Much of Dumont’s recent output has been set outdoors, amidst wide-open countryside and overgrown bushes. When, in Joan of Arc, we cut inside the Gothic hugeness of Rouen Cathedral, it registered as a shock. With France, the opposite is true. While the marble interiors and mock-Renaissance furniture of France’s home are putrescent, scenes in the Élysée Palace show the real thing as just part of the desecrated national furniture — entirely unremarkable. The classicism means no more than the garish colors of TV-studio scenes, which really capture the French broadcasting style from the guests’ slim turtlenecks to the huge backgrounds that blow up France to the size of the Almighty. It’s only in a key outdoor scene, when Dumont indulges in drone photography of the Mediterranean coast, that characters manage to be sufficiently blown away by the scale of the world around them. And then, nature wrecks its judgement.
In scenes of France on the job, starstruck anti-ISIS loyalists fighters take direction for a news segment in Niger. We see France visit a bombed-out city to manipulate more footage, before Dumont cuts to a nearby resort, where bomb smoke is hidden by palm trees, and some shoot their reports by the pool. The best of this thread, which illustrates France’s — both character and country — control of her image, comes during an extended migrant boat sequence. France and her crew fake a Mediterranean crossing with migrants: They hold up the lifeboat’s departure so they can get the right shot, just before Dumont reveals that her press boat is alongside it, so she can sleep in complete safety “from lice.” When the coast guard arrives, the crew jumps back onto the migrant boat, and then capture her being the first person taken off by the authorities, flashing a big grin.
The cynicism of these scenes undercuts whatever genuine soul searching France is going through. When she returns home, France and her assistant-cum-best friend Lou (Blanche Gardin) manipulate the footage further. Whatever France has been through, it’s just a way to constantly reinvent herself. Coming from Dumont, a director who seems to predict the violence and terror of culture that is always soon to the fore, this verdict on the country’s exploitative reactions to the catastrophes of the Global South as a tool for white self-actualization, is cutting.
France also makes for the best star vehicle Léa Seydoux has had thus far, as she’s often given the short shrift, confined to supporting roles. Here, her deadpan allows her to lurch between comic vulnerability and vast emotion. She turns this shaggy-dog story into something approaching high melodrama. Dumont’s shift across the last decade into outright absurdity, and his exuberant mistrust of form, is grounded by Seydoux’s star persona. “I love you France,” yells a reporter at one point, with the Eiffel Tower winking in the background. Dumont’s ideas may suffer from a lack of coherence, but in their abundance, France cuts straight to the bone.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.