Whenever a new Bruno Dumont film comes along, you’re never sure which of the uncompromising auteur’s guises is going to show up. Will it be the arthouse nihilist of L’humanité or Twentynine Palms, or the high camp japester of Slack Bay and Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, a heavy metal musical about the early light of the legendary martyr? Well, to nobody’s surprise, he’s pivoted again. This time, we get a state of the nation media satire that is unfortunately neither funny enough or dramatic enough to satisfy anyone. In fact, it’s a strangely dialled-down affair that does nothing except cement Léa Seydoux as one of the most decorous weepers in cinema today.
France de Meurs (Seydoux) is a high-powered journalist with easy access to the top echelons of the country’s political establishment. See seems to juggle work and family with ease, confident enough to try and stage manage news reports in bullet-riddle war zones. But when she knocks a courier of his scooter in a momentary lapse of due attention, it begins a spiral into doubt and depression. As she becomes a news subject as much as a news maker, France has to take stock of her life and career.
It all begins impressively enough, as France demonstrates her professional clout by asking a tough question to a squirming Emmanuel Macron at a press conference. Dumont flawlessly inserts Seydoux into archive footage of the president, and undercuts him by sharing a series of winks and rude gestures with her assistant Lou (Blanche Gardin). It seems as if we’re in for a Drop the Dead Donkey or Call My Agent! style media caper. And this is one of a few moments where Dumont shatters the wall between the face of reportage and the attitude of its practitioners to the public at large.
For the most part however, it’s a curiously muted affair, in dramatic terms at least. Visually Dumont and DP David Chambille get the garish, supermarket-bright lighting of a TV studio, and the subjective handheld chaos of a battleground spot on. But Seydoux’s France is presented as somewhat inscrutable, insulated from the audience as a character. Her frequent, and good lord are they frequent, breakdown into tears are the same both onscreen and off, and seem to be practically her one font of emotion. If Dumont’s point is that France practically exists only as her own media construct, then it’s a point he makes laboriously again and again over two and a quarter hours. France is practically a living embodiment of Tennyson’s couplet; ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same.’ And neither the triumphs nor the disasters do much to raise the pulse.
Perhaps that’s Dumont’s point in both the character and the starry wattage of Seydoux herself. As with the country that shares her name, we can project whatever we wish on to France. It means so many things to so many people. And like the actresses of the old studio systems, Dumont is presenting Seydoux as a mediated object; to be interpreted and imprinted upon in any number of ways. But in leaving so much up to interpretation, in terms of character, story and thematic drive, the question is whether Dumont is guilty of trying to say too much, or of saying nothing at all.
Screening as part of the French Film Festival 2021