France

Director: Bruno Dumont (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium). Year of Release: 2021

Paris, one of those big government buildings that you (I) should know but don’t fully recognise. Two women push through the throng of press and fans into the building. The one in front, the blonde one, pauses for autographs and selfies. She then moves to the first row while the brunette stands at the back making those embarrassing heart signs with her hands. Up comes Emmanuel Macron. The blonde woman asks a question and Macron waffles unintelligibly.

France de Meurs is a great journalist. She must be because everyone keeps telling her she is. Mustn’t she? She hosts a prime time tv show and is a war reporter, dictating to her crew what they should film (primarily her). As she films and re-films interviews with French-financed soldiers, I’m not sure what message we are supposed to take – that all news reports that we see are clearly staged, or that we should bow down and applaud France’s skill as a presenter/producer?

This confusion is not necessarily a bad thing. France is not a hugely sympathetic character – when she cries (as she often does), our first thought is how did she manufacture that? And yet, the film is shown almost entirely from her point of view. And she’s played by the wonderful Léa Seydoux (now, very unfortunately, referred to as “Bond girl Léa Seydoux”, in honour of probably her least interesting film). Who can feel true hatred for a smiley Léa Seydoux?

The film wanders from one scene to another. We go from the war reporting to an incident where France knocks someone over in her car. She visits the victim’s family, and later checks into an exclusive clinic for depression. There she meets, falls in love with, and is betrayed by, someone who says that he’s a Latin teacher. She returns to work, then her assistant presses the wrong button and the public hears how little France really cares for the people she is claiming to save.

France is a central figure in all these scenes, but it’s hard to fathom what these scenes have in common, or whether there is any real plot development. France’s career has huge highs and lows. As the film goes on, she experiences a huge personal tragedy, but we’re not really invested enough in her – positively or negatively – either to celebrate her triumphs or to feel a certain Schadenfreude about her misfortunes.

I’m not sure whether France the character is supposed to represent the country which shares her name. I guess she must, as it can’t be a pure coincidence, but it’s hard to see how. Is director Bruno Dumont railing against the growth of trashy journalism? And if he is, is this exclusively, or even predominantly, a French phenomenon? There is much in this film which points to a degenerating society, but little to relate this with specific problems that France is undoubtedly experiencing.

But rather than focus on, say, the increasing political influence of the actual Nazis of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and others, France (the film) prefers to occupy the exclusive apartment of a rich journalist, replete with expensive but not particularly tasteful art. For an apparently political film, there is much less politics going on than personal animosity.

France, the journalist, claims to have no politics, to be “neither Left nor Right”, as the cliché goes. This is, at least, her public persona. When boarding a boat of refugees (which she will leave for a bigger boat when she needs to sleep), she tells them that she is producing footage that no other journalist has dared to show – that she is on their side. When talking to people with other political opinions, she is equally supportive, if this allows her sufficient camera time.

I think that the film lives or dies on how much we care about the life of a rich, privileged woman who has so far not encountered any real problems with her life. Some people have identified – I wish you well. But for the rest of us, it is really difficult to get too concerned about the First World problems that the largely unlikeable France encounters.

Of course, Léa Seydoux’s performance modifies this. It is hard to fully dismiss any film that she’s in, and there is something intensely charming about her performance, even while playing an entirely unsympathetic character. This is something, but it’s not enough. For the first half of the film, I was largely bored. Halfway through, I started to get interested, but can now barely remember anything afterwards that I actually saw.

This could have been an interesting film. It fixed on the right subjects – in particular on a vacuous media which is no longer prepared to ask serious questions. But rather than focussing on someone who is trying to challenge this status quo, It showed us the travails of a rich journalist who is having problems working within these parameters, as if this is the real problem. It is a film worth making. But only if it had been made a completely different way.

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