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By Ray Lobo | December 10, 2021

France is the most cynical dark comedy to come about in a long time. Writer/director Bruno Dumont chose such a title for literal reasons — the setting and the protagonist’s name, France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux). He likely also chose the title for allegorical reasons. The filmmaker plunges us into contemporary French society as vapid, shallow, and image-obsessed as the United States. Mentions of cynicism, shallowness, and the over two-hour runtime may immediately make some viewers believe it is not worth the time investment. Let me be clear: the film is bleak, funny, and thrilling.

France de Meurs is both a journalist and newscaster. She and her assistant Lou (Blanche Gardin) approach a press conference with President Macron not as an opportunity to ask a probing political question but as an attempt to charm him! The naughty gestures exchanged across the room by France and Lou are hilarious, given the gravity of the setting. The paradigm adopted by France and Lou is that television news is less about information and more about visual spectacle.

In one scene, France reports from a conflict zone in the Sahel. She directs it by putting on her serious reporter persona, telling ISIS resistance fighters what to do and where to look, as if they are props in a fictional drama. She instructs them to “try to look stronger, tougher.” Another scene involves a group of migrants on a small boat whose plight is “reported” by France and a cameraperson from the safe distance of a yacht. The juxtaposition between the reality of the news and the hyperreality of how they’re reporting it effectively drives home the themes Dumont is conveying.

“…a press conference with President Macron…[France] attempts to charm him!”

France also explores the lead’s home life. She experiences a crisis of faith concerning the artificial world she inhabits. Her marriage is in shambles, she hits a food delivery worker (Jawad Zemmar) with her car and goes to a charity event wherein participants extoll the virtues of a type of religio-capitalist philanthropy and trickle-down economics. France’s breaking point arrives when a political guest on the show tells her about her contribution to journalism. It doesn’t go well.

At the risk of repeating a dull cliché, either the film will click with you or it won’t. For my part, I cannot heap enough praise on Dumont and the cast. The filmmaker could have made a banal dark comedy that resolves itself in France, finding her humanity and connecting with those outside the celebrity/political milieu she frequents. Gleefully, he opts to go in a different direction. The director paints a black hole at the center of France’s personality, and then he boldly paints it even darker.

France tries to find her humanity via “average folks,” but these folks are just as shallow, spiteful, and celebrity-obsessed as France and those in her circles. It would be criminal not to mention Seydoux’s performance. She carries the film and fulfills Dumont’s vision of portraying a character who transforms from vapid celebrity to a “three-dimensional” human being. However, at no point does one feel sympathy for her. To her credit, Seydoux’s nuanced performance — not easy any stretch of the imagination — makes the viewer feel that her connection with “average folks” is merely self-serving, just a way of easing her conscience.

Dumont’s cinematic influences are obvious; Bresson immediately comes to mind. It must be said, however, that the strongest influence is not a cinematic one. While watching France, I could not stop thinking of the playwright Bertolt Brecht. In fact, Dumont name-checks Brecht in the film. As was the case with Brecht’s plays, the filmmaker does not want us to associate or sympathize with the character of France. Dumont aims to incite a critical response from viewers. He wants us to reflect on the contradictions inherent in the contemporary media spectacle — the presentation of reality through artificial framing. Most of us are aware of the “production” inherent in television news. Dumont presents to us the contradiction and spurs us on, in Brechtian fashion, to try to resolve it. 

France (2021)

Directed and Written: Bruno Dumont

Starring: Léa Seydoux, Blanche Gardin, Jawad Zemmar, Emanuele Arioli, etc.

Movie score: 9/10

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"…aims to incite a critical response from viewers."

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