This review of “France” was first published on July 15 after the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
Léa Seydoux had a bad Cannes. After testing positive for COVID-19, the actress canceled her trip to the festival where she was slated to take up an extremely uncommon four-night residency on the red carpet and in the press room. And without the glamorous actress, her four titles were left to fend for themselves. The results weren’t pretty.
Of Seydoux’s four films at the festival, “The French Dispatch” fared best; but then, the actress only had a bit part in a film whose real star was director Wes Anderson himself – though he didn’t do a press conference either. And if follow-ups “Deception” and “The Story of My Wife” earned their fair share of jeers, for the most part festivalgoers blew them off with a weary Gallic shrug.
So say what you want about Bruno Dumont’s “France,” which was greeted with a chorus of boos (and, to be fair, some scattered applause) following its press screening, at least it drew a reaction.
What’s even more interesting is the high perch from which it fell. Offering an acridly satirical take on fame and celebrity, “France” follows the life the country’s No. 1 hot-shot TV anchor, France de Meurs (Seydoux, of course), who hosts a nightly news broadcast in between the odd jaunt to stage-managed “war-zones” to boost her cred.
By opening his film with a seemingly authentic cameo from French president Emmanuel Macron (some trickery might have been involved, but if so it’s very well done), Dumont throws down the gauntlet, as if to say, “I have the sacred cows in my sights and the means to take them down.” As France makes jerk-off pantomimes at a press conference not two feet from the blathering president, the Cannes audience roared in delight. No doubt much of their harsh closing assessment came from disappointment that the film never again reached such heights.
Instead, Dumont devises a bizarre distancing aesthetic – even name-checking Bertolt Brecht along the way – that casts the subsequent goings on in the harsh light and popping colors of a television studio. Cranking up the contrast and exposure and bathing each and every frame in cold luminescence, “France” wants to make the point that for its mega-famous lead, all the world’s a set.
It does so early on, then leaves the viewer to navigate this garish landscape that can often be painful to behold.
Credit where it’s due: The filmmaker sets an intention and follows through as he explores the hollowness of contemporary fame. For her part, Seydoux wears a mask of white makeup and incandescent red lipstick in each and every scene, resembling no less than a Kabuki figure whether she’s interacting with her family, getting some hard-earned rest at Swiss spa, or offering blocking advice to a group of African migrants trying to make it to Europe from their boat.
But the film isn’t a total wash. Seydoux finds ways to move and emote through her Noh mask, and Dumont finds interesting avenues to explore, tracking the uneasy dance between compassion and commodification when dealing with hot-button stories. Only it’s all too much, too long, too repetitive, too one-note, too contemptuous of the very idea of cinematic pleasure to really land.
A late-in-the-film car crash illustrates this very point. Dumont ratchets up the scene to broadly farcical proportions without ever allowing himself to crack a smile while doing so. The film’s place in a Cannes competition that also includes “Benedetta” and “Titane” only further emphasizes the blind spot. Those films prove that a filmmaker can be both within a moment, playing it up for all that it’s worth, while commenting on it from without. It’s been done before, and it’s been done better at this very edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Maybe it’s better that Seydoux wasn’t there to see it.