French filmmaker Bruno Dumont is nothing if not a provocateur. His work consistently pushes boundaries, often experimenting with vastly different genres in order to toy with baked-in visual and narrative conventions. Whether he’s operating within a musical, comedy, biopic, horror or coming-of-age film, Dumont’s gaze is always exacting and undeterred, highlighting the oft-ugly (and never easily digestible) intricacies of humanity. Perhaps this is why his films are generally so divisive, and undoubtedly why his latest, the newsroom satire France, will have its equal share of detractors. Though the film is a logical addition to Dumont’s existing filmography—with an emphasis on the hideous reality of war, yet not without humor—it is nonetheless hindered by its enigmatic aura, never quite elucidating the basis for its satirical lens.
Eponymous news anchor France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) is one of the most nationally beloved figures in la République, with hoards of devoted fans stopping her on the streets of Paris in search of selfies. She hosts a roundtable debate program that delves into hot-button issues—though the fervent conviction of each guest quickly dissipates when the camera cuts. This is, essentially, the crux of France’s sprawling critique: The very orchestrators of “newsworthiness” couldn’t actually give a shit about the material conditions of the perils they cover. This is constantly explored through France’s own reportage, which often takes her to war-torn countries “aided by” the French military in their quest to quash Daesh, where she stages shots (or perhaps more poignantly, establishes mise en scène) to best position herself in the midst of conflict. You see, the stories she covers never merit exposure through their human interest and political pull alone—rather how her presence and persona can benefit from the suffering of others. Literally named France and often uselessly traversing dangerous landscapes that her namesake aided in destabilizing, the (post-)colonial irony of her newscasts doesn’t take much effort to notice. However, France doesn’t merely fix its focus here—there are several plot twists that add sensationalist intrigue to France’s personal life (and tabloid image) that make the viewer just as guilty of begging for titillation as the celebrity-poisoned populace the film denounces.
While Seydoux’s performance is riveting, there’s a layer of impenetrability to the character that hobbles the film as both an effective social satire and melodrama parody. As France progresses, France’s emotions rarely leave her face—grief, exasperation and, more often than not, outright sobs of anguish—yet a certain sense of interiority is never established. She simply seems to go through the motions, her personality only discernible when performed for an audience. This works well enough when it’s solely depicting France’s participation in the celebrity media machine, but feels frustrating and misplaced when the narrative shifts toward her personal dilemmas. For this reason, there’s also no reason for anyone to identify or sympathize with France, making her a familiar yet ultimately untouchable avatar to the viewer—likely how she also appears to her fictitious fans.
Even in its most frustrating moments of abstraction, Dumont’s film is precisely making its point. One of France’s principle shortcomings is that it portrays the country’s migrant population (and so-called “crisis”) just as two-dimensionally as France does in her newscast, yet even this aspect of Dumont’s film serves a broader purpose. In presenting more fodder for the mythic monolith of migrant life that pervades French media, Dumont prods at the very trope itself. When France accidentally injures a young migrant man named Baptiste (Jawad Zemmar) in a car accident, she takes it upon herself to give generously to the family, who thus consider “Madame France” nothing short of a saint. Though she feels immense guilt over this incident, she nevertheless embarks on assignment with her crew to cross the Mediterranean with a group of migrants as they risk their lives to enter Europe. But when not on camera, she rides on a small yacht alongside the dinghy for her and her crew’s comfort. (“You didn’t want lice!” quips her assistant Lou (Blanche Gardin), a bonafide scene stealer and comedic foil to France’s self-seriousness.) In any sense, it’s always refreshing for a film to thrive largely on opacity and moral intimation—in fact, France somewhat recalls Brady Corbet’s 2018 celebrity satire Vox Lux—yet it lacks the pulsing energy of Corbet’s investigation of fame, and eschews an incisive scope of political relevance in favor of nondescript war zones and empty depictions of migrants. Of course, this ambivalent gaze is also kind of the point.
Whatever it’s trying to say, France rewards those who are willing to take the journey without a promise of clear resolution. Fortunately, there’s a whole lot offered up to observe along the way—France’s gaudy, nouveau riche Parisian apartment; stylish Swiss Alps sanatoriums for the clinically despondent; broadcast news studios awash in glistening glass and polished talking heads. It’s likely that most viewers will have one distinct slice of Dumont’s satirical spectacle resonate more deeply than others, while some might walk away wondering what the hell they were supposed to make of the whole pie. One thing remains true above all: In the fast-paced world of sensationalist news-mongering, intentions and insights are often muddled and obfuscated for the sake of creating conflict. In this sense, France remains closely tethered to its source material: Nothing in this world is clear, so why not make it entertaining instead of make sense?
Director: Bruno Dumont
Writer: Bruno Dumont
Stars: Léa Seydoux, Benjamin Biolay, Blanche Gardin, Emanuele Arioli, Gaëtan Amiel, Jawad Zemmar
Release Date: December 10, 2021 (Kino Lorber)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste, Blood Knife and Filmmaker magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.