FRANCE – Review by Leslie Combemale
I’ve never wanted so badly for a character to be hit by an asteroid as the lead character played by Lea Seydoux in auteur writer/director Bruno Dumont’s France. The film is meant to be a satire on fame, celebrity, and the blind adulation of news personalities and their takes on the news, and as such, it’s certainly interesting. Lea Seydoux excels at being at once beautiful, inscrutable, and magnetic as France de Meurs, a fictional celebrity newscaster, clearly designed in the vein of Christiane Amanpour. De Meurs, however, proves to be manipulative, self-absorbed, and shallow, even as she attempts introspection after a minor accident leaves messenger Batiste (non-actor Jawad Zemmar), the sole breadwinner for his family, laid up and unable to work for three months. The film follows her ostensibly inward journey towards change, which is belied by the way she centers herself in every news story, is incapable of removing herself from the spotlight, crying as she reports every humanitarian crisis while seeing those around her as tools existing for her benefit or objects to be manipulated to get the best viewer reaction.
There are choices writer/director Bruno Dumont makes in the production design and editing in support of his vision that all the world is a stage, for newscasters and those in charge of presenting the challenges of French society and how it fits into a larger geopolitical picture. At the very beginning of the film, he uses CGI tricks on a real press conference with Emmanuel Macron, injecting Seydoux’s character to create an exchange between her and the French president. He also shoots intentionally unbelievable scenes in which it’s clear the actor is on a soundstage. They elevate the film in terms of bringing consistency to it, but on the whole, they aren’t enough to affirm any clear point of view. A satire has to have a direct subject in its sights to really work. In a press conference, Dumont declared of the lead character France, “She’s a woman, and for women of all countries, the woman represents the country.” So is France the country a vapid opportunist resigned to suckle at the teat of misery to keep its position on the world stage relevant? Perhaps it would have been better to keep the film’s original name, On a Half Clear Morning, which would have made required parallels between the character and the country less essential to its success.
As the film progresses, the character is often either on the verge of or awash in tears. Whether surrounded by at-risk refugees, reporting from a soundstage, or sitting in traffic, the tears are the same. Are France’s tears real or manufactured? If they’re real, does she have enough self-awareness to know they are about how she fits into the moment, and not about true compassion? No, she does not. She’s like that new-age friend we all have who talks about their ‘higher self’ while tossing a stink eye at the homeless begging for change. At one point, France reveals to her therapist that she ‘has too much self esteem’, but she certainly doesn’t do anything to place herself among those she clearly thinks are beneath her. The signs of her hollow, bourgeois perspective are everywhere. The apartment she shares with the husband she resents and the son she ignores looks like the pope’s green room. Painted black and sparsely furnished, it has a huge crimson carpet, gigantic stained glass modern art, and paintings of religious icons. It’s like she is all but praying at the alter of her own sainthood, and expects the rest of her family to do the same.
Having said all that, the film is still worthy of a viewing, if only to see Léa Seydoux gamely taking on this ambiguous, thankless role, and making France de Meurs a memorable, if infuriating, anti-hero. Clearly Dumont wanted her to play a reflection, a beautiful yet flat surface that only offers the signs of emotion, as opposed to the emotions themselves, and she went all in. It’s an admirable effort.
2 1/2 out of 5 stars.