France (2021) Dir. Bruno Dumont
Readers of a certain vintage may recall when Angus Deayton had to step down as host of satirical news quiz Have I got News For You in 2002 when he was caught being a naughty boy – not once but twice. The hook behind the moral outrage was the man who made fun of the news WAS the news. Quite choppy waters for him to navigate.
Popular TV journalist France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) has her own show Un Regard Sur Le Monde (A View Of The World) on the private news channel i, for which she films her own reports and hosts debates. But as she is riding high, her world begins to crumble when she knocks over a delivery man Baptiste (Jewad Zemmar), hospitalising him.
Whilst France’s guilt is genuine and she makes amends with Baptiste and his family, this puts France in the spotlight as a news story rather than a news reporter, the glare of the public for something other than adulation and fandom, puts a strain on her marriage to novelist husband Fred (Benjamin Biolay) causes France to re-evaluate her career and her attitude to life and fame.
Bruno Dumont is one of those directors with a varied oeuvre amongst which are films you’ll enjoy more than others, making for a polarising viewing experience. Dumont has a wavelength that you either connect to or don’t, yet he makes it difficult as he changes it from film to film, meaning we have to start from scratch each time. Again, this is a trait you’ll either find refreshing and exciting or infuriating and disappointing.
Naming his lead character after his home country is an early indicator that Dumont has a point to make, and his target is the news media, specifically 24 hour TV news channels and how they go about their business. A ripe subject for satire, although not a new one – older fellow Brits may recall the classic 90s TV comedy Drop The Dead Donkey, and there are couple of moments here that will bring back some memories of it.
I refer to the reports France films on a war torn location which involving farmers-turned-soldiers defending their land against ISIS, with refugees fleeing to the safer environment of…erm…France. Our intrepid reporter – in full make-up of course – cuts a passionate and empathetic piece to camera, then has some fun staging cutaway footage with the soldiers, undermining the gravity of the situation.
Later, after a tearful monologue pledging solidarity with refugees on a rescue boat, we cut to France and her crew on a separate luxury boat before rejoining the refugees when the coast guard appears. Darkly comical, cynical, yet hardly subtle but sometimes you have to bit on the nose. However, this exemplifies a problem with Dumont’s intentions, whether this is a cheeky satire on fame and the news industry or an abrasive human drama.
Dumont struggles to find the right balance, throwing in too much of the drama leaving the lighter moments to jar against France’s self-inflicted need for reassessment of her priorities. She and hubby Fred have a young son Jojo (Gaëtan Amiel), who blows hot and cold on his mother from her hardly being there, whilst Fred is made to feel small by his wife earning five times more than him. At least France has her PA, Lou (Blanche Gardin) to keep the sycophantic platitudes of support and encouragement coming.
A recurring motif is people wanting selfies with France and often picking inopportune moments to ask. In fact, Baptiste’s family are more star struck than angry over France knocking their son down, despite him being the sole breadwinner, which a few Euros in reparations from France helps soften the blow. This does little to help France’s image, so she flees to a retreat in the alps to sort herself out after quitting TV live on air.
Eventually, fame means being a victim of your own success and your chosen industry will one day turn on you, as France finds out the hard way. At the resort. She meets Charles (Emanuele Arioli), the one person who doesn’t know who France is (from not owning a TV) and she finds his unaffected manner comforting. Except, Charles isn’t who he appears to be and France gets a taste of her own medicine and she doesn’t enjoy it one bit, naturally.
The fall from grace isn’t over and it is a vertiginous one, laced with irony and asking the big question is France likeable enough that we are on her side or do we say “serves you right?” She is a victim here no doubt, but of her own game, which should be a wake-up call. The problem is, some people just never learn and the oblique ending Dumont leaves us with only emphasises that – or does it?
Had the story focused on the satire whilst defining France’s character within this milieu, I feel this film would be more effective; running for an unnecessarily bloated 134-minutes, there is plenty of fat in need of trimming. This only supports the idea that Dumont was overegging the pudding, and diving too deeply into parts of France’s private life meant we don’t see the full extent of the duality of her on and off screen personae.
For fans of Léa Seydoux, this will be a treat as she dominates the screen for most of the run time, delivering a career-best turn in her enigmatic essaying of the title character. Likely to wow female viewers is the wardrobe Seydoux is bedecked in, a non-stop parade of chic fashions of all colours, designs, and styles, adding gloss and glamour to what is an already handsomely shot presentation.
Satire works best if you continue to gnaw away at your subject, and whilst Dumont gets a few nibbles in on his topic, the protracted distraction of the garnish in France leaves us with a mostly satisfying meal that gets cold a little too quickly.