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- Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
The confrontational cinema of Bruno Dumont has always provoked debate around the question of authorial contempt. Sometimes the director assumes an ambiguous stance towards his characters – and, by extension, his actors – as in the films he shot in Nord, his native region, with non-professionals portraying grotesque and frequently violent characters. At other times, as in France, the ambiguity is all but non-existent.
Having taken an unexpected turn toward comedy with the caricatural Li’l Quinquin (2014) and the increasingly hyperbolic films that followed, Dumont has now made a satire of the blackest kind. In France, he doesn’t go for laughs; his withering and implicating critique of our hyper-mediated present exaggerates its absurdities but denies us the catharsis of laughter.
The only instance of conventionally funny, uncomplicated humour comes in the opening scene, where he takes shots at an easy target: Emmanuel Macron. At a press conference, the superstar journalist France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) asks a question to the President, eliciting a characteristic prevarication. His response is contrived through a montage of archival material and it takes hardly any editing to render him a bumbling fool.
As an amazing touch the closing credits specify that Macron did not act in the film. Perhaps it’s a legal requirement but it’s superfluous given that he’s placed in the room through hilariously unconvincing chroma keying. Apart from the obvious disparity in image quality, the perspective is off, so that in a shot from behind France Macron seems to be twice her size and looming over her.
What could be mistaken for shoddy craftsmanship is later revealed to be very much intentional. Whenever characters are in a car, for example, the view outside of the windows is so poorly simulated that it screams for attention. In one scene France and her assistant Lou (Blanche Gardin) are driving past the Eiffel Tower and the image just cuts to an apartment building; in another France gets out of her car and doesn’t so much as pretend to open a door.
Such Brechtian moments of glaring artificiality serve to contrast the film with the object of its critique: the media, symbolised in toto by televised news. France owes her fame and obscene wealth to sensational reports of current events. We see her interviewing Tuareg fighters in North Africa, carefully directing her cameraman while she dictates their answers and asks them to shake their Kalashnikovs in the air. When she hosts political debates on her show the participants scream and abuse each other, only to then exchange pleasantries once the cameras are off. All of mediated reality is staged – significantly, ‘staging’ in French is called mise en scène – and neither France nor anyone else questions this state of affairs. France isn’t evil, she’s wholly unconcerned.
Dumont’s cinema, like that of Pier Paolo Pasolini, is preoccupied with a form of spirituality that isn’t religious but is codified in Christian iconography. It’s this quality that allows his characters the possibility of redemption even when they commit atrocious crimes. The French society that he depicts here is one in which empathy is manufactured to attract viewers, sins (i.e. public scandals) are absolved within the 24 hours of the news cycle and values have been denuded of meaning. “The worst situation is the best!” Lou enthuses to France after a disgraceful on-air gaffe. The only trace left of any sort of belief is represented by a giant Gilbert & George artwork, a faux stained glass window that hangs in France’s opulent and tasteless apartment. After establishing this panorama, the film asks what it would mean to have a spiritual crisis in a world devoid of spirituality.
Like a modern-day Saint Francis, France suffers a breakdown of her worldview, in this case precipitated when she hits a young immigrant with her car. She quits her job and drifts without purpose until, at a black tie event, a man describes capitalism as “the gift of oneself to others” while pontificating about the virtue of giving away one’s possessions and dying poor. His sermon is cut short when he chokes on his wine and vomits all over himself, but France takes it to heart all the same. By the time she’s given away €40,000 to the family of the man she ran over, her husband sends her to a retreat in the Alps where celebrities, Angela Merkel among them, go to recover from contemporary malaise.
The mountain air does the trick and it’s not long before she’s back on her show, pretending to cross the Mediterranean in a dingy full of migrants when in fact she’s riding along on a yacht whenever she’s off-camera. She loves her job, her ratings are soaring and viewers adore her. Then why do tears keep rolling down her face?
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Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy