“Forget a brighter future, progress, ideals … that’s all dead. That’s what makes us suffer. Only the present remains. Here and now. Forget all expectations. Don’t postpone the present.”
For over two minutes of the ending monologue of France, the latest effort from Bruno Dumont, Léa Seydoux stares at the camera, barely blinking, rings below her eyes. One could easily imagine such philosophical rambling intoned in Teutonic timbre by Werner Herzog, or buried in the affirmative polemics of Friedrich Nietzsche. Instead, they conclude a speech that the film’s title character makes to her ex-lover after he has betrayed her. “I’ve known worse sorrows since,” she tells him stoically when he asks for forgiveness. “This one’s trivial. Life puts things in perspective.”
Arguably, only Bruno Dumont could get away with making a two-hour-plus satirical drama about France, called France, depicting an ironic heroine named France de Meurs. And surely few but Seydoux could remain as riveting onscreen in a film that, for all its scathing parody of news media in its first two thirds, ultimately kowtows to bathos. France de Meurs is the country’s hottest television journalist, known as much for her witty ripostes to rival politicians on her evening news hour, A View of the World, as she is for scrappy coverage of global unrest. Her Insta-ready life implodes when she accidentally collides into a motorcyclist after dropping her son off at school. “Are you okay?” she asks, abandoning her hatchback mid-traffic. “Where does it hurt?” A police officer arrives in seconds, as do passersby with smartphones, eager to catch France’s favorite reporter become her own headline.
From a raffish director perhaps best known for his recent Joan of Arc diptych, much of France continues Dumont’s tradition of both celebrating and interrogating la République for its enduring contradictions. At once a so-called woman of the people and well-coiffed member of the Parisian glitterati, de Meurs transforms her car accident, and the media imbroglio that follows, into a spectacle of redemption that only improves her public image. “We watch every day on TV,” gushes the mother of Baptiste (Jawad Zemmer), the victim, who is convalescing at the hospital with a dislocated kneecap when France and her assistant, Lou (Blanche Gardin), visit with flowers. “It is an honor.” When asked on a television talk show how the young man is doing, France breaks down into tears, and it’s hard to tell if her regret is sincere or staged — or if, for her character, there’s even a difference.
It’s around this point that the tone of the film shifts from ludic snark to heavy drama. France quits her job as television pundit, absconding to a luxe sanitarium in the Alps to reflect on the meaning of life, during which time she falls for Lolo (Marc Bettinelli), who seems charmingly immune to her celebrity charms. Spontaneously serenading her on a snowy walk with a medieval Latin dirge about “the end of the world,” Lolo offers everything France’s stiff novelist husband cannot: youth, sincerity, and, most crucially, escape.
Returning to domestic life in her enormous flat, France decides to come back to television journalism, but not without a string of very public defeats that leave her questioning everything, both personal and professional. Had the movie concluded here — Lou reassuring her boss that, after her latest PR fiasco, “You’ll rise again as a heroine” — Dumont’s critique of the hypocrisy, and psychological carnage, inherent to both his country’s and broader media culture would have resounded more powerfully. What follows seems an attempt at a climax that feels almost risibly over the top, leading into 30 often plodding minutes on the tragedy of human existence.
France may not be a great film, but its narrative and tonal weaknesses throw into relief just how strong Seydoux is as its thumping heart, how dramatically she physically and expressively adapts when tossed into divergent contexts. Clomping up a cliff in some unnamed war-torn country, she orders her cameramen to get a move on — “Get me the shots! I want the ruins!” — only to feign tears as she reports on a foreign battle. “Wherever we go, images of war are the same. Those of tragedy and desolation.” Onscreen, the actor rarely looks the same, plumbing her shape-shifting prowess to maximal effect — by turns weepy and maudlin, cheeky and winsome, manipulative and introspective. “Mr. President, one may wonder about the insurrectional state of French society,” she importunes soberly from the front row of a press conference in the opening scene. “Are you heedless or powerless?” In the next shot, she winks at Lou, who playfully mimics oral sex from the back of the room, mocking Macron’s stately response.
The film’s most cogent scenes are perhaps those in which Dumont’s political concerns are most clearly at stake.“What is capitalism?” poses a spindly tuxedoed man to his table at a fundraiser to which France is invited. “Capitalism is the gift of oneself to others. It means striving for virtues, both moral and spiritual,” he answers, to the clinking tones of champagne flutes. France’s blank countenance disrupts the chorus of nods around her. As she flees to the powder room, a fur-clad socialite interrogates whether “Madame de Meurs is left or right wing?” “What difference does it make?” is Seydoux’s response, glaring over her sequined shoulder.
“She knows she’s part of the capitalistic system,” the actor told the New York Times about her eponymous character. “But she’s conscious of the fact that she’s also a tool of the system. And she’s conscious of her own alienation.” For all of Dumont’s cynicism, Seydoux comes across as strikingly sincere. If redemption is ultimately futile in France, the onscreen virtuosity of its star makes the movie worth watching.