Director Bruno Dumont’s satire is sharp and funny but fails to examine itself for the very biases it wants to challenge.
In medieval morality plays, the dramatis personae always includes the likes of Charity, Death, and Temperance, named for the vices or virtues they embody. These characters are vessels, existing somewhere between allegory and literalism and imbued with the social values and anxieties of their time. French surrealist Bruno Dumont (Lil Quinquin, Slack Bay) drags this tradition into the twenty-first century with his latest film, France.
France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) is France-the-nation’s premier journalist. Renowned across the country for her bold yet compassionate perspective, she is the people’s darling, the one they put their trust in. Between the edits though, France is more interested in provocation and making good TV than she is in getting answers or justice. But when a freak accident causes a small crack in her artifice, it sets the stage for her total collapse.
The allegory clicks immediately. The self-conscious filming of France producing her segments brilliantly satirizes the facade fabricated by the media to tell sensational stories. France watches France interview French-backed insurgents fighting ISIS, gather B-roll footage, and splice together a story that is more about France (both the nation and the journalist) than it’s about the fighters on the ground.
By the time the final product is aired in the studio, the picture has made clear how each layer of France’s performance is constructed on top of each other, creating the tangible sense of ironic distrust Dumont is seeking.
This succeeds primarily thanks to the compelling work of Léa Seydoux. As a character and a nation, France continually boils over with emotion. Thus, Seydoux churns France’s emotions beneath the surface. She’s cheeky with best friend/assistant Lou (Blanche Gardin) one moment, asks tough questions of President Macron the next, and hops back to jokes which are followed immediately by a disaffected fugue state.
Through calculated holds, glances, and gestures, Seydoux showcases the architecture of France’s interior life.
Seydoux’s work is consummately professional. She understands how to play the difficult deadpan humor Dumont is known for. Indeed, her banter with Lou makes for some of the most delicious moments in the movie. But it’s when France starts to fall apart that Seydoux’s mastery of her craft and this role become truly apparent. As France de Meurs becomes tangled in her web of performance, Seydoux makes her polished veneer slip right before the audience’s eyes.
France’s eyes well—but are her tears real or fake? Does she even know? Seydoux digs into France’s trying to work that out. Through calculated holds, glances, and gestures, Seydoux showcases the architecture of France’s interior life. This doesn’t just make for a formidable foundation for her character, it’s a tool she uses to showcase new layers peeling off of France as the film progresses.
Seydoux’s work is particularly impressive given that for all his brilliant aim and concepts, Dumont casts his line out a bit too far between each recoil. While some tension needs to be let out so that emotions can snap back, Dumont frequently leaves the audience drifting to the point that the picture’s thread gets lost.
Dumont’s conception of French media hypocrisy is strong. But he’s doing iterative rather than groundbreaking work, so the massive number of examples Dumont provides of that hypocrisy ultimately prove counterproductive. Oui, France is disaffected. Oui, she constructs messages and ideologies hypocritical. Et alors?
Furthermore, the moves France-the-moviemakes to prove a greater point about France’s political duplicity come at the expense of the racial others portrayed in the film. Dumont may have set out to say something about France’s colonial and faux-benevolent treatment of Arabic people and political refugees, but in practice, the colonizer is the only one who speaks and retains the focus.
Calling attention to racially constructed narratives does little when the objects of those narratives remain obscured and silenced. France ultimately repeats the same sour colonial narrative it seeks to critique—leaving the racial others in its cast objects of spectacle whose only function is to reaffirm White humanity.
France is a lot to take in. It boasts a brilliant concept, a cataclysmic ending, Alexandra Charles’ impeccable wardrobe stylings, and Seydoux’s exquisite performance. But, examining the narrative being assembled—just as France asks viewers to do when engaging with national media—makes its own gaps and failings become clear. France fails to successfully overturn its own prejudices despite the enlightened ideals it aspires to, much like the nation it holds under a lens.
France arrives in theaters on December 10, 2021.