Rating *** A must-see
Directed by Bruno Dumont
Maybe the best scene(s) of France — not La France, though Bruno Dumont doesn’t attempt to hide the national implications of the film, literally making the first shot a view of a French flag — comes early in the film, as the amusingly named France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) is shooting one of her many news reports in a war-torn country. After conducting a translated interview with one of the loyalist fighters, she essentially directs a smattering of B-roll: a reverse shot with her issuing questions straight-on into the camera against a different background, a shot of another soldier instructed to walk past the camera, and a series of miscommunications with soldiers, attempting to get them to act heroic. After this jumble of moments, the next scene shows the end result, a genuinely rousing expression of solidarity that concludes, tellingly, with a close-up of France. While the temptation to connect this with an exposé of the journalistic process or, especially, filmmaking in general, is quite strong, the impact of the sequence, apart from the minutiae of interactions that take place — including a selfie taken by the first fighter and the general spectacle of watching Seydoux in a troop transport — lies in the synthesis, in the gulf between different manifestations of appearances.
I will freely confess that my firsthand knowledge of Dumont’s work is limited to the Quin/Coin duology, which I have a strong fondness for, and Jeannette, which I found so mindnumbing that I haven’t seen its counterpart. But France evidently marks a departure for the director, who made fairly austere and rigorous works for about the first decade and a half of his career, then began making much more overtly comedic works beginning with P’tit Quinquin (2014) and Slack Bay (2016). While even those works took place for the most part in rural areas, this film firmly situates its home turf in Paris, and specifically in the most elegant arrondissements of the city. Everything, as befits a film at least in large part about the media, is hyperreal: France and her husband and son live in a ludicrously large and high-ceilinged modern apartment that looks lifted straight out of Saint Laurent, car ride scenes are rendered with too-large rear projected images, and the cinematography is glaringly bright; even bombed-out ruins are shiny and digital, something that the shifts to lower-quality news camera footage can only do so much to overcome.
From these layers of artifice comes an unexpected anchoring force: the visage of Léa Seydoux, which would seem almost too perfect in this setting — and buffeted by the colorful array of attire she wears — to convey a host of emotions, each more complex and profound than the last. But France spends something like a fifth of its not inconsiderable runtime to simply sit and stare at her face. It’s uncommon for a film that’s otherwise this glossy to spend the contemplation that’s apparent here, with so many moments where the conversation or surrounding context will seem to drop out and Seydoux’s face — which at turns throughout the film is inscrutable, mischievous, anguished, and nearly every other emotion under the sun — will undergo a series of minute transformations. Such movement amidst restiveness forms something of a manifesto for this film’s intentions: to turn the gaze of fame and sensationalism back upon itself, a set of reflections that produce unexpected changes.
As I said before, I haven’t seen Dumont’s actual rendering of the trial, but it’s irresistible to see France as another, modern iteration of Joan of Arc, here spun out not into issues of life and death — that comes for other people — but into questions of morality and belief, though of a much more worldly pattern and through often hilariously absurd moments. The close-ups are certainly suggestive, but it comes forth even more fully in the rapid back-and-forths of emotion and interactions, sometimes almost too pointed in their intention but each palpably registering, thanks to Dumont’s willingness to sit with the moment. Everything rests upon a sequence of gaps: between the glamor of France and the dire situations that she puts herself in, in an almost competitive desire to push her coverage into uncharted waters; between the malicious intentions of a journalist and his apparently genuine adoration; between the seeming unseriousness of France with the scrupulousness and insight of her reporting.
Perhaps most boldly of all, France appears to recognize the limits of the transformation that traumatic events can provide within the modern world. The characters, including France, generally retain their general outlines, their convictions as can be rendered on a multitude of two-dimensional screens: a television, a smartphone). But Dumont shakes them, at least for a time, making sure that the gravity of the world can exert its force in both the most expected and unexpected of circumstances, one drawn-out shot and rupture at a time.