Written and directed by Bruno Dumont.
Starring Léa Seydoux, Benjamin Biolay, and Blanche Gardin.
A celebrity journalist, juggling her busy career and personal life, has her life over-turned by a freak car accident.
It’s tough to consider what broader audiences will make of Bruno Dumont’s latest effort, a tri-pronged satire of sensationalist news, social media, and the perils of fame that somewhat offsets its saggy pacing with a finely calibrated performance from Léa Seydoux.
France de Meurs (Seydoux) is a celebrity TV journalist who insinuates herself into the fabric of a story wherever possible in order to boost her profile, be it making a mocking spectacle of President Macron’s news briefing or quite literally directing a fleet of ISIS-rebelling soldiers to pose, while her own face is plastered front-and-center.
But when France accidentally knocks over a motorcyclist, Baptiste (Jawad Zemmar), she finds the cameras turned towards her in a fashion she no longer consents to, her media colleagues scrambling for dramatic crumbs no matter that Baptiste wasn’t gravely injured and the matter was resolved amicably.
Critiques of social media narcissism and the soullessness of mainstream news are hardly original touchstones in 2021, and while Dumont’s film isn’t a superficial satire of these subjects, it can feel like a bit of a slog getting to the real dramatic meat of the matter.
Sights of France’s own son buried in his phone as she tries to greet him, and a galling scene where she interrupts a delicate interview to record an extra round of camera coverage, shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s not entirely blinkered to the world around them.
But the fateful accident with Baptiste generates a blackly comedic act of the snake swallowing its own tail, as France becomes an unsavoury news item herself, cameras pointed in her face for embarrassing selfies and interviews alike.
Yet what sets France apart from other satires of these subjects is the growing self-awareness of its titular protagonist. “My self-esteem is excessive,” France declares after venturing off on a spa visit to (unsuccessfully) clear her head. Seeing a narcissist reckoning with their own inflated ego is, per the nature of narcissism, an incredibly rare sight both in life and certainly in cinema. It’s by far the most interesting and original thread of Dumont’s film, as he seems to ask, how can one live unselfishly with cameras documenting your every which move?
Though Dumont’s portrait of societal rot feels low-key dystopian, France is really at its best as a character study, as France’s soul slowly begins to reveal itself outside of her prim, perfectly coiffured exterior. It’s far too simplistic to say that France’s unhappiness is rooted entirely in either her comfortable-yet-unfulfilled family life – namely a son and husband who seem not terribly interested in her – or her realisation of the miasmic professional enterprise she’s party to.
There’s a slyly perverse, playful tenor to Dumont’s film beyond its broader satire, relishing in willfully jarring tonal shifts which reflect the discord in France’s life. This is never better embodied than by a sharp narrative left-turn in the final 20 minutes, an almost parodically grim event that may admittedly prove one step too far for many. France is, even in its greatest moments of clarity, an unapologetically uneven tableau, and over its 133 minutes, quite exhausting at times.
It falls to Seydoux, then, to guide viewers through, and that she does with a tenacious performance which switch-foots nimbly between modes as the tragi-comic tone requires. She is perfectly cast as the appealing France, and skilled enough to execute the dichotomy of impeccably pristine TV presenter and anguished human being. Dumont is smart enough to center his film around Seydoux’s face, which he captures in close-up with tears streaming down it on regular occasion (seriously, it could be a drinking game by film’s end).
Dumont also uses his self-consciously glossy aesthetic to bolster his film’s themes, taking a mixed-media approach to the various cameras and lenses through which we observe France throughout – from the movie’s cinematic perspective itself to news cameras of varying visual fidelity.
Cameras are everywhere within the world of the film, both as objects which benefit France’s career and, increasingly throughout, like weapons keen to trap pieces of her soul. The finest part of the stylistic package, however, must be the disarmingly ambient score from the late Christophe, melding electro-pop beats with heavy bursts of bass sure to shake rooms wherever it’s played.
If the tousled ambition of Dumont’s film will wear down some, many more will struggle with the pic’s two-plus-hour runtime, in which numerous sequences feel willfully distended long after their point has been made. Art shouldn’t be efficient by necessity, but making it to the end of this piece invoked feelings of sluggish tiredness.
France is a messy and long-winded satire of the modern media landscape, but director Bruno Dumont clearly appreciates the value of Léa Seydoux’s endlessly expressive face, which he takes full advantage of throughout.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.