Once upon a time, the French director Bruno Dumont was known to art-house audiences as the poker-faced provocateur behind Twentynine Palms and the Cannes Grand Prix-winning Humanité. Then came the small-town mystery miniseries Li’l Quinquin, revealing a hitherto unseen side to the filmmaker: Dumont the goofball. Embracing self-parody without betraying the core themes of his earlier films, his subsequent projects have taken his austere style in an absurdist direction, with results that have ranged from the Pythonesque (Slack Bay) to the bizarre (Jeannette: The Childhood Of Joan Of Arc).
Though it’s less surrealistic than these quirky works, Dumont’s latest, France, seems similarly designed to exasperate. Part media satire, part ’50s melodrama, it centers on France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux), the host of a French news program called A View Of The World. She is introduced, along with her crude-joke-cracking producer and confidante Lou (Blanche Gardin), as she follows a busy itinerary around Paris, moving from a press conference to the TV studio to the palatial apartment she shares with her decidedly less famous novelist husband, Fred (Benjamin Biolay).
Everywhere she goes, strangers ask for autographs and selfies. For Dumont, she is a distillation of media celebrity—and perhaps a symbol of national superficiality, at least as it pertains to French domestic debates and involvement in world affairs. In one clever early sequence, Dumont shows France shooting an interview in a war zone, recording re-takes of questions and directing soldiers like extras; later, we are shown the seamlessly cut result. The point is about as subtle as the protagonist’s name: News is show business, and journalism, by extension, is a form of acting. Whether she’s reporting from ruins in a combat helmet and bulletproof vest or moderating a debate between political pundits, France is a star.
All that is changed by a minor accident. While dropping her son off at school, France bumps her car into a young man named Baptiste (Jawad Zemmar), knocking him off his scooter and dislocating his kneecap. Under the watchful eye of the tabloids, she visits him in the hospital and befriends his parents. Is she genuinely concerned, or is it all an act staged for the paparazzi who track her every move? Soon, she begins to suffer crying fits on camera and in public. Is this too part of the act? And if it is, who is she acting for?
Dumont’s theme remains, as ever, the struggle for sincerity. His main structural idea in France is to construct the film around the ambiguous, inscrutable protagonist’s relationship to the camera, often placing Seydoux dead-center in the frame. Our attention is constantly drawn to her costuming, posing, and screen presence; the compositions could be beatifying her glamorous poise or mocking her phoniness. Distancing effects add to an already artificial atmosphere; the most prominent is the deliberately unconvincing rear projection. (At one point, there’s even a cut in the background footage while the characters are being driven around Paris.)
That this recalls an earlier era of filmmaking appears to be no accident. Sinking into an existential crisis, France leaves behind her career and retreats to a ski resort, and France briefly turns into Dumont’s take on a Douglas Sirk romance, minus Sirk’s sublimely detailed mise-en-scène. From there, the film takes some overwrought turns, including a second, fatal car accident that amounts to one of the most comically overwrought depictions of automotive tragedy in contemporary cinema. The sequence is unquestionably funny, but while Dumont has proven in recent years that he has an irreverent sense of humor, one is never quite sure whether it’s meant to be—or why.
That we should question France’s sincerity just as we question the title character’s may be the point Dumont is trying to make—something about how the modern media landscape makes everything a potential put-on. But the film (which is, among other things, overlong) never completely fits together. The satire of media fakery and façades is broad and repetitive. The drama is intentionally cryptic and remote. Dumont does not make conventionally satisfying films, and, for all of his visual minimalism, he loves a mess. But he is more than capable of making movies that are engaging on a level beyond the purely intellectual. France, for the most part, isn’t one of them.