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Review: Bruno Dumont’s France Is a Muddled Satire of Sensationalist TV News

France indecisively utilizes a news personality’s crocodile tears as as symbolic of the bad faith that pervades news discourse.

Photo: Kino Lorber

There’s a famous scene in James L. Brooks’s Broadcast News that hinges on Holly Hunter’s principled news producer discovering that William Hurt’s rising reporter, her lover, faked his tears for an interview with a rape victim. The naïveté of this moment has always been astonishing, suggesting that media insiders were just discovering that television news is partly showbiz, often requiring bullshit to grease the wheels of public interest. If such a scene was ridiculous in 1987, the notion of anyone having optimism to lose over the rapidly mutating media bloodsport of the modern age is entirely alien.

Nevertheless, writer-director Bruno Dumont’s latest whatsit, France, similarly yet indecisively utilizes a TV personality’s crocodile tears as symbolic of the bad faith that pervades news discourse. Perhaps sensing that a satire of the media manipulation industry is almost predestined to be anachronistic, Dumont blurs the line between melodrama, critique, and broad comedy in an effort to cover his tracks. Despite its hefty, state-of-things title, France doesn’t add up to much, which is certainly part—but only part—of the filmmaker’s joke.

The title itself is a sign of how Dumont plays footsies with his intentions. A film called France by a renowned Gallic director suggests an epic, career-defining grappling with French culture. France marginally hunts such game, but Dumont goes out of his way to deflate this assumption, which is about the only sign this film exhibits of his characteristic cheekiness and perversity. There are references to the 2017 protests over Emmanuel Macron’s labor reform bills, the migrant crisis, the debate over what to do with the European Union, and to terrorist factions in the Middle East, yet these hot topics are glibly reduced to soundbites.

Of course, this irony is very pointedly achieved on Dumont’s part, as he illustrates how mass media warps important stories into tribal slogans. In one of France’s earliest and wittiest scenes, Macron himself appears via a few tricks of editing, giving a press conference that’s so chopped up that it could be about anything. (It’s presumably a reaction to the protests.)

At that press conference is a TV news journalist named France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux). Soon we discover that a potential treatise on a country by one of its most distinctive film artists is actually a rise-fall-rise-again-fall-again-rise-again story of a woman who treats TV news as a fictional film project. Forget Hurt’s tears in Broadcast News. France dictates camera placement, shoots reverse angles, asks interviewees for retakes and—in one of the film’s more audacious scenes—faking her travel across the Mediterranean Sea in a raft full of African migrants. France directs her subjects to confirm a society’s preconceived notions of them, which they casually endorse so as to further their own aims. These scenes, merging news and cinema to suggest a chimera of myth written on the fly, are fascinating, and Seydoux exhibits the ruthless bravura of Kirk Douglas’s reporter in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.

Yet these scenes also unfold within an apparent alternate reality in which the internet barely exists. Surely a contemporary media satire has to include social platforms and the polarization that they advance for profit. We’re meant to believe that France is an icon, but her weirdly bland human-interest stories would never commandeer such universal public fascination. Even as a metaphor or joke, it’s an idea as absurd and naïve as anything in the more obviously square Broadcast News. No TV personality, playing more or less by conventional rules of the game, currently holds everyone’s attention so devoutly in a culture that’s so driven on division, encouraging people to retreat to their respective niches and despise others from afar. The conceit is as retro as VHS. We’re meant to believe that France is so cynically vague (she refuses to disclose her political convictions, assuming she has any) that she’s conquered a culture that in reality thrives on boldly, intolerantly fetishizing your specific allegiances.

Competing with these vague media discourses is an alternately arch and straightforward story of a woman attempting to reconcile her ambitions with her personal identity—the sort of thing that pegged a film as a “woman’s picture” and featured actors such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Barbara Stanwyck. Even at their crudest, such films were often driven by a bracing clarity—by a stark conflict between self and society. France, however, is murky, which is a disappointment given the extraordinary wedding of gallows political humor and tragedy that Dumont managed in Joan of Arc. The filmmaker is too hip to take France seriously, quite convincingly suggesting that she’s a cipher, yet he doesn’t dramatize her hollowness either.

France’s problem at large circles back to a matter of tears. In a recurring motif, we’re meant to ponder when France’s crying is staged and when it’s legitimate, both during her reportage and in her personal life with her husband (Benjamin Biolay), son (Gaëtan Amiel), and lover (Emanuele Arioli). Certain scenes, namely an exquisitely staged car crash, would be devastating in a more conventional director’s hands, but here they feel arbitrary. The film’s melodramatic crescendos, set to Christophe’s huge and beautiful score, are so unconvincing that they scan as sarcastic, which may be Dumont’s intent. And this have-it-both-ways-ism is what’s so frustrating about France, as it’s so well defended against its mediocrity.

Cast: Léa Seydoux, Blanche Gardin, Benjamin Biolay, Emanuele Arioli, Juliane Köhler, Gaëtan Amiel, Jewad Zemmar, Marc Bettinelli Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 131 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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