THE WASHINGTON POST – It would be a stretch to suppose that France de Meurs, the Parisian heroine of Bruno Dumont’s tonally complex, thematically sweeping movie France, somehow represents the nation with which she shares a name.
But it’s not out of place to wonder whether the film’s title – and, presumably, its true subject matter – refers to the place, not the person. There are simply too many big ideas – modern media and its manipulations; immigration and income inequality; privacy and voyeurism – bubbling around in this tasty and nutritious bouillabaisse of a film for it not to be trying to say something about the state of France today.
Or of the whole world, really.
France, the person, is played by Léa Seydoux (No Time to Die). She’s a television journalist whose American equivalent would be hard to find: not just a reporter/anchor/interview host, but a celebrity on par with a Kardashian, or a literal rock star. Everybody knows France’s name and France’s face, and many would say they love her.
The story opens with a presidential news conference featuring Emmanuel Macron; the Macron footage is real, not staged, but it’s been manipulated by Dumont to insert France into it, where she and her producer Lou (Blanche Gardin) – after exchanging a goofy pantomime of obscene gestures – attempt to ambush the leader for social-media “likes.”
Lou’s favourite word for France’s performance here (and everything she does on camera is a performance, Dumont suggests) is génial – which translates to brilliant. She’s a shining star, whether covering politics or conflict zones, with helmet and bulletproof vest.
But things start to fall apart – or, rather, something implodes inside this star – after she is involved in a minor fender bender with a moped-mounted deliveryman (Jawad Zemmar), who dislocates his knee, making it impossible for the young man to support his immigrant family. They’re only too happy to play host to France when she visits their home, by way of apology. They don’t want to sue her, or even complain, but France insists on writing the family a check.
At this point – and it’s not clear exactly why – our protagonist has a breakdown, leaving her television show, her detached husband and bratty son (Benjamin Biolay and Gaëtan Amiel) and checking herself in to an expensive clinic in the Alps for treatment. This happens roughly around the halfway point of this two-hour-plus film, whose first section can be slow, meandering, diffuse and discursive, hopping around from one subject to another: from the political to the professional to the personal. If it’s a satire of television media – and it may or may not actually be one – it’s without much bite.
But something happens in the film’s second half. Make that several somethings. It’s best to leave the details of the story a surprise, but from this point on, France becomes a far better and far more interesting movie, and not just because its narrative becomes more incident-rich, sometimes shockingly so. Dumont doubles down on a trick he’s been using all along, but which I hadn’t really noticed until an hour or so into the movie: For many, many scenes in France, Seydoux looks directly – often in close-up – at the camera.
Some of this is due to the nature of her character’s job: As a journalist, France is used to working in front of a lens in the studio.
Even in the field of battle – in scenes of violence, or on a boat overfilled with refugees – we’re shown how reality is reshaped (and often restaged) to heighten the impact. Seydoux is an amazing actress, and whether facing the lens of her cameraman (Marc Bettinelli) or Dumont’s, she has a face that reveals every flickering emotion.
If France de Meurs isn’t the subject of this film, then a world that can’t stop looking at her is.
France ends with a scene that’s open to interpretation, but what has come before isn’t: Dumont is clearly critiquing the way we mediate life via screens, large and small.
There are times in this rambling story when the filmmaker’s point isn’t quite as obvious, but that’s only because he has a habit of trying to jab several moving targets with a sharp stick all at the same time.