“France” (Bruno Dumont) 2021
I’ve always thought it was rude to ask celebrities to let you take a selfie with them but TV anchor France de Meurs puts up with such requests most of the time. After all, she’s doing a similar thing when she inserts herself into wartime situations, coaching Syrian soldiers and immigrants on how to stand, moving her camera and sound men to get reverse shots and cutaways. She’s getting selfies of herself in the midst of tragedies she has the luxury of exiting easily. Best of all, she can cry on cue. She cries so much, indeed, that it is difficult to know when she is really hurt or sad.
In Bruno Dumont’s “France,” France de Meurs is played by Léa Seydoux, the 36-year-old actress most famous in the U.S. for her roles in the last two James Bond films. Seydoux’s brilliant performance carries the picture, along with the cinematography by David Chambille and the often exquisite soundtrack by the late Christophe. (Some scenes are accompanied by what sounds like someone crying melodically.)
De Meurs is a French broadcasting superstar. In the opening scene French President Emmanuel Macron picks her for his first question in a news conference . (Macron did not participate in the filming; the scene was faked digitally.) While he is responding to her, de Meurs shares smirks and rude gestures with her assistant Lou (played by French standup comic Blanche Gardin), behavior that somehow goes unnoticed by the dozens of other reporters present. Lou is a horrible person who gives her boss bad advice and delights in the thousands of likes and retweets her social media posts receive. When a hot mic accident later is caused by her own clumsiness, she blames it on the technicians.
France lives in a huge but hideous apartment decorated with expensive paintings ranging from the Rococo period to Gilbert and George. Her novelist husband (Benjamin Biolay) and young son are remote and uninterested in her. She is universally adored by the public and quietly patient with the unwanted attention she receives. But then a series of controversies punctures her smugness. She runs into and injures a scooter delivery boy. Wracked by guilt she compensates the family; unsure of her own competence as a journalist she decides to leave her television job.
A visit to an exclusive Alpine report gives her a brief respite from civilians demanding autographs and photos and even has an affair with a college professor who seems delightfully unawares of popular culture. (He’s a Latin teacher!) The landscapes are so ravishing we are as capable of being fooled by him as she is. More damaging headlines and further tragedies turn her into almost a scapegoat being punished by God or Dumont for her pride and and her attempts at redemption. A car accident involving her husband and son is filmed in a curiously voyeuristic and somewhat appalling manner. She returns to broadcasting (well, Brian Williams did it!) and is revealed to be just as self-involved and unquestioning of the lies of the media as before.
This film made me think of Lucrecia Martel’s 2008 Argentinian film “The Headless Woman,” another film about a wealthy woman, in this case, unsure if she has run a boy over with her car. In both films, the guilt of wealthy people is presented as a privileged, complicated and philosophical response. The parents of the injured delivery boy in “France” are so honored by a visit from France it’s as if they are glad their son found a way of prompting the visit. A confounding reconciliation at the film’s end is book cased by an oblique verbal epiphany and a scene of the French equivalent of a CitiBike being crushed by an angry young man. (Tragedy of the commons!)
It’s tempting to view the film as a national allegory (though the country would be referred to as “La France”) depicting changes in France over the past few decades but this interpretation doesn’t work nor is it satisfying. As a critique of social media and mainstream TV it is old news; as far back as 1987 “Broadcast News” depicted a TV correspondent (William Hurt) conjuring up tears to make an interview more compelling. And 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd” still holds up as a brilliant attack on the demagoguery of television celebrity.
In interviews Dumont seems to invoke the work of Debord and Baudrillard to describe his critique of how the omnipotence of mediated realities have confused our sense of what is real but then goes on to naively assert that the art of the cinema can restore it. Instead, “France” is confused, repetitive and overlong and witnessing the sufferings and tears of de Meurs can be exhausting but not particularly illuminating.
133 minutes. Opens in NYC December 10, 2021.
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