For FRANCE, philosopher-filmmaker Bruno Dumont once again partnered with cinematographer David Chambille and distributor Kino Lorber to project onto the screen the interior world of his characters in a multi-faceted film about the media industrial complex.
In keeping with Dumont’s cinematic ideals, titular France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) is a character who lacks heroic qualities. France the character is France the country’s top journalist, loved by viewers and an apparent cash cow for her media network. In over-the-top fashion, France’s producer-assistant Lou (Blanche Gardin) directs France’s moves for maximum social media engagement and does and says whatever it takes to manage France’s fragile emotions. Lou is a caricature, a stand in for all that is absurd in industrialized storytelling. Describing the origins of the film, Dumont says, “There’s a lot of ‘cinema’ all over the place (and in every sense of the term—a lot of playacting, a lot of dreaming). Notably in the media industry.” France too is a player, acting, directing, and editing for maximum effect but with charm and a hint of self-awareness.
France’s life is picture perfect by all outside measures. However, her relationships with her husband, Fred (Benjamin Biolay), and son, Jo (Gaëtan Amiel), are strained. The cause of the tension with Fred who appears to genuinely care for her and their son isn’t clear. What we do learn about Fred is that he too is a storyteller, a novelist whose recently published book is “daring.” Even when mocked by their friends at a dinner party for writing a hybrid work, Fred stands his ground. The subtext suggests that Fred pursues art while France pursues profit. Despite their mutual discontent, they work around and with each other domestically and professionally. All things considered, France’s life is not so bad. Nevertheless, she suffers. It is the disproportionate measure of her internal misery compared to her external reality that makes her character difficult to empathize with.
It is easier to mistrust her. Early on we follow her on assignment in Afghanistan. Unhappy with how she comes across at various times while interviewing local fighters, she directs several takes, even repositioning herself to take advantage of a more dramatic backdrop and a location where only she is in frame. After getting the interview clips she wants, France attempts to get specific B-roll footage. Dumont’s sequencing shows her crafting the piece in her head as she goes. She directs several men to act out dramatic walking, gazing, and signaling. It is clear that the men do not understand what she wants from them, but they attempt to follow her instructions in uncomfortable amusement. This scene evokes questions about the relationship between journalism and cinéma vérité and the boundaries of informed consent.
When France’s finished report airs the internet blows up, which pleases Lou.
After the report and while she a guest on another show, France says, “I feel I have a mission. Through my gaze, I can show a certain vision of conflict…” Her halting delivery suggests that she both believes this and doesn’t. The host then asked a prescient question, why does France feel the need to be present in frame and if it’s a form of staging. France assures her that no, her approach has nothing to do with staging. It is, she says, her way of offering “a more sensitive approach.” France goes on to say that “It’s all subjective.”
As the film progresses, France becomes aware of the inescapable realities of fame and how media consumers’ appetites turn journalists into content creators. The troubles of the famous become eagerly consumed headlines and ingredients for the soup that is social media. She is followed and her comings and goings reported. She does misstep, but we do not see any meaningful consequences meted out by her superiors. Meaningful conflict is internal rather than external. This highlights her privilege.
At the mid-point of the film, France tells a therapist that she wants to be transparent but acknowledges that her heart is sick.
Through wide-angel shots, pitch-perfect mise en scène, a haunting musical score, and achingly long takes, we experience her dissociation, grief, and acceptance of herself and the system as they are.
FRANCE offers a feast of discussion-worthy topics in and of itself, but its depth is perhaps best explored in the context of Dumont’s body of work.
In LA VIE DE JÉSUS (1997), the lead character Freddy is an unemployed young man trapped in a small French town. With few prospects and time on his hands, he rides aimlessly around town with his friends, finding amusement where he can. After he and his crew rape a young woman, Freddy’s girlfriend takes up with another young man who becomes the target of Freddy and his friends’ frustration. Where Freddy is unemployed and trapped in a small town, France is fully employed and has access to the world. Both are restless and miserable. Freddy turns his angst outward, tearing down his world with his own hands. France attempts to keep herself together, maintaining her respectability as best she can.
Where LA VIE DE JÉSUS is a tight story with a clear plot, FRANCE is loose. We enter the story after cracks have formed in France and Fred’s relationship and never learn the source of their troubles. Fred’s artistic journey is not fully explored. Dumont instead focuses the audience’s attention on France’s internal suffering and events and relationships outside of their marriage. Perhaps this is on purpose. Perhaps France herself cannot bear to look at that aspect of her life. Perhaps Dumont means to show by comparison that for the young cause and effect are clearer and that as we age all the inputs and outputs of life become harder to track. Some questions will never be answered, and some storylines never resolve. He and we must, however, acknowledge them if there is to be any truth in the presentation.
And it is truth or at least authenticity that Dumont seeks. In a masterclass interview by Kieron Corless at Ciné Lumière, Institut Français du Royaume-Uni, Dumont states his belief that a filmmaker must be analytical and “above all somebody who has a sensibility, a sense of analysis and reflection and cinema is a means of expression.” He goes on to say that “the most important [thing] really is the gaze, the outlook you have.” The character of France voices Dumont’s truth in the film. Is this his way of staging himself in his reporting?
In that same interview, Dumont and Corless discuss the director’s reasons for casting non-professionals to play the characters in his first films and television mini-series LI’L QUINQUIN (2014) while selecting acclaimed actress Juliette Binoche to play the lead in CAMILLE CLAUDEL 1915 (2013). For Dumont, it “is not the actor’s name but their nature.” Ordinary people as he puts it are on screen what they are in life, authentically playing out the nature of their characters. Camille Claudel was an artist. Binoche, an artist, playing an artist brings authenticity to the role.
That film covers a brief span of time during Claudel’s 40-year confinement in a mental institution. Trapped among severely disturbed patients, Claudel suffered greatly. She was both unaware of her “madness” and acutely aware of the “madness” of those around her. Dumont describes France de Meurs as “a cinematic ectoplasm whose surprising and human appearances force the spectator to question the real of which she is nothing but a specter.”
Like Juliette Binoche, Léa Seydoux is a natural in her role. She is poised and beautiful and a real-life player in the industrial media complex. And her skill as a professional actress is on full display in this role. She is captivating, bringing to life a character that is complex and pitiable.
When discussing casting for CAMILLE CLAUDEL 1915, Dumont says, “It was absolutely out of the question for me to ask actors to play being mad.” Instead, inmates of the institution were cast in supporting roles. The film has been described as a compassionate look at mental illness, but questions of consent and disquieting thoughts about how the system and its players profit from using people as props remain. Is this his way of offering “a more sensitive approach”? It is as Dumont acknowledges, “complicated.”
As he did in earlier works, writer-director Bruno Dumont once again finds a way to communicate the uncommunicable and forces his audience to observe the ugliness until they—not necessarily the character—rise above it. FRANCE, therefore, can be seen as part of a broader conversation, a philosophical conversation Dumont is having with himself and his audience, a working out of ethics and ideals through the expression of cinema.
FRANCE, an Official Selection for Cannes International Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, opens in theaters in Los Angeles (Nuart Theatre) and New York (Film at Lincoln Center) on Friday, December 10, followed by a national rollout.