Thursday 23 September 2021

France (Bruno Dumont, 2021)

Some months ahead of the autumn 2019 theatrical release of Bruno Dumont's Joan of Arc, the director declared that his next project, On a Half Clear Morning, would star Léa Seydoux and Benoît Magimel.  Obviously, much has happened in the world since that announcement was made, and while Seydoux remains at the heart of Dumont's latest, both the film's original title and male lead were jettisoned along the way; the movie now carries the somewhat inferior title of France, while Magimel has been replaced by Benjamin Biolay.  In case you've somehow managed to avoid the news, Seydoux has seen another of her films fall victim to pandemic-induced delays; by this time next week, we should know whether the 25th entry in the James Bond series has been worth the wait—or if it's much like the previous 24.  With her casting in France, Seydoux joins the handful of big-name stars who have topped the bill in a Bruno Dumont film; while Dumont's previous ten feature films (and two miniseries) have largely featured non-professional performers drawn from his native Flanders, he has diverged from this tradition on a few select occasions—most notably in his work with Juliette Binoche and Fabrice Luchini, both of whom have two appearances for Dumont in their sparkling filmographies.  

As France begins, Seydoux's eponymous news anchor is attending a press conference given by French president Emmanuel Macron, while her producer Lou (Blanche Gardin) cheerfully mugs away in the hope that these antics will tickle France (spoiler: they do).  This opening quickly establishes France's lofty status: she's a very big deal in the world of journalism, and even Macron knows her name.  There are some awful chroma key effects here, and it is doubtful that many will be convinced that Seydoux and Gardin are in the same room as Macron.  As it transpires, this isn't the last example of terrible greenscreen to feature in France, and the penny soon drops that known perfectionist Dumont is deliberately employing sub-par process shots, presumably in order to illustrate how so much that is fake is assumed to be real.  For France is about how news is presented, and we witness the title character's efforts to stage situations so that they make for the best TV—irrespective of whether she's reporting on migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean or the plight of Tuareg rebels.  As someone who manipulates stories that are subsequently broadcast as straight reportage, France is clearly not viewed with any sympathy by Dumont, and this same disdain extends to those who eagerly lap up crass journalism.  Here, such consumers are symbolised by the gaggle of adoring fans who continually tail France in the hope of a selfie or an autograph; while France usually obliges with such requests, she's quick to mock her followers once they're out of earshot. 

Although much of the film focuses on France's professional life, we do get to see both her opulent apartment and her family: husband Fred (Biolay) is a novelist, and although he's someone who has enjoyed some success in the creative arts, he's much less famous than his wife.  Fred and France have a young son, Joseph (Gaëtan Amiel), and it is while on the school run one morning that a distracted France is involved in a minor collision with Baptiste (Jawad Zemmar), a young man on a moped.  France makes a real effort to befriend and compensate Baptiste and his family, and something seems to have shifted in the presenter's demeanour; she decides to take some time out from her glittering career, and checks into an exclusive Alpine retreat.  There, France meets fellow guest Charles (Emanuele Arioli), and it is an indiscretion with this seemingly charming young man that will prove to be very costly for her.  Having engineered countless news reports of her own, France now finds herself at the centre of a contrived scandal, and the outlook is bleak; live by the sword, die by the sword, etc.  Yet even worse is to come for France, and a queasy, showstopping scene slyly illustrates the ghoulish sensationalism so prevalent in bottom-rung news reporting. 

While it may not be particularly accurate to describe France's title character as a straw target, there's a seeming obviousness to the film that will initially wrongfoot viewers accustomed to Dumont's work; it all feels a bit on the nose.  Yet as the film progresses, it becomes apparent that there's something else at work behind the superficial, garden-variety swipe at the media; France is used to both playing to the camera and crying on demand, but as the post-accident version of her becomes more prone to moments of introspection, her tears appear to be genuine.  Not for the first time in a Dumont film, the director films his star in striking close-up as they look skyward; while this moment explicitly recalls Joan of Arc, it also has much in common with the closing scene of Dumont's very first feature film, The Life of Jesus, in which the main character stared at the heavens with a newfound awareness.  Given all that's preceded this shot, it seems almost unthinkable that France might entertain the notion that there's something more important than herself, yet, although this isn't what could be described as a Damascene conversion, it appears that something inside France has changed for good.

Seydoux, clearly aware that she's playing a caricature for much of France's lengthy running time, is good value in her role, and her presence no doubt contributed to the wide distribution the film enjoyed on its domestic release in late August.  Biolay isn't given a great deal to do—although he is involved in one huge scene—and largely appears to be channelling his part in On a Magical Night.  As France progresses, it becomes increasingly Dumontian, and Jawad Zemmar gives the sort of performance so typical of non-professionals in the director's films—as does Fabian Fenet, who was so good in his substantial role in Joan of Arc.  Fenet has a smaller part this time around, yet he features in a pivotal scene, and his presence—alongside Léa Seydoux and Blanche Gardin, no less—provides a welcome reminder of how adept Dumont is when it comes to getting a tune out of these untutored actors.  With much of France set against the backdrop of the big city, there's a welcome change of scenery in the final reel as Dumont moves the action to the Opal Coast he knows so well, and it is here that we experience the film's most moving scene.  For this brief stretch, Dumont is both literally and figuratively on home ground, and as France takes in the windswept landscape, she states simply: "It's beautiful here".  Indeed.

Darren Arnold