For the opening scene in “France,” writer and director Bruno Dumont pinches from Woody Allen’s “Zelig” and Robert Zemeckis’s “Forrest Gump” where the title character is paired onscreen with historical figures. As special effects go, it’s something anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of green screen trickery could pull off without much trouble.
Here, it is done in the modern day where French president Emmanuel Macron is conducting a press conference and takes his first question from France (Léa Seydoux), a celebrity journalist seated in the (plum position) front row. What she asks him is incidental; what’s more telling is his inability to deliver a cognitive straight answer and she—so very proud of her snarky inquiry—develops a severe case of the giggles. France exits the press conference with her entourage in tow and enters a waiting limousine.
This is an inviting start to what appears to be a pointed and jagged political satire and had Dumont stuck with this barbed and stinging approach for the duration, it might have led to something along the lines of “Dr. Strangelove,” “Wag the Dog,” or “The Death of Stalin.”
Also containing flashes of “Network,” “To Die For,” and “Broadcast News,” “France” soon morphs into a commentary on the (alleged) trappings of fame and how those who report the news end up becoming the news. At first, thanks in part to the constant, blithering fawning from her sycophant assistant Lou (Blanche Gardin), France is sure of, if not fully content with, her professional mission. She hosts a panel show, regularly reports from war zones, rescues oppressed fleeing civilians, and is a fashion icon to boot.
France Is No Bimbo
Instead of portraying France as an airhead with too much unfocused vigor, Seydoux plays her more as a control freak who choreographs her “in the field” reports while passionately guarding her image and public persona. One scene in particular, while she is interviewing an anti-Jihad resistance fighter in an unnamed country, is particularly telling. Like a seasoned feature director, France establishes marks, camera angles and B-roll filler footage. During filming it all looks haphazard and random, but the finished clip proves she was right on with every decision.
Hinted at early on but only brought to full stride at the start of the second act, life at home for France is less than ideal. Living in an apartment more resembling a staid museum with her failed novelist husband Fred (Benjamin Biolay: think a less-macho version of Benicio del Toro) and androgynous, device-addicted son JoJo (Gaëtan Amiel), France is a wife and mother in name only. She also makes five times as much money as Fred (which he resents), who is in the planning stages of cheating on her.
It is after a minor traffic accident involving France and a man on a scooter that multiple levels of self doubt start to kick in. The media blows the situation way out of proportion, Lou gives it some misguided positive spin and the man’s parents are simply overjoyed that their son was hit by the famous, do-no-wrong France, scoffing at the mere suggestion of her offering monetary compensation.
The Wake-Up Call
For the first time in her life, France realizes her status as a celebrity not only overshadows her work as a serious news person but also gives her a pass whenever she screws up (which is now happening with more frequency). Most famous people would consider these to be good problems to have, but for France, it’s an overdue wake-up call.
During a career and personal time-out at an Alps mountain spa and resort, France meets Charles (Emanuele Arioli), an unassuming teacher who has no idea she’s famous (as he doesn’t own a TV). It’s now the start of the third act and what follows is the closest Dumont gets to delivering a surprising plot twist. Granted, this isn’t a mystery or thriller, but nothing preceding this point in the narrative comes as much of a surprise.
Seydoux Saves the Floundering Film
Although she has worked for the likes of Quentin Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds”), Wes Anderson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The French Dispatch”), and Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”), starred in a “Mission: Impossible” installment, and played a Bond girl in the last two Daniel Craig 007 movies, Seydoux has flown beneath the radar of most non-European audiences. To date she’s appeared in 38 (mostly good) features since her debut in 2006—a major achievement by anyone’s standards. Seydoux’s next project, David Cronenberg’s thriller “Crimes of the Future,” has her co-starring alongside Kristen Stewart and Viggo Mortensen.
At various points in this film, Seydoux—who could have easily pursued a career as a model—takes on the airs and mannerisms of, among others, Grace Kelly, Greta Garbo, Jeanne Moreau, and Catherine Deneuve. Appearing in practically every scene, it wouldn’t be a stretch to state the movie would have not worked at all without her as the lead. This is a difficult part which requires minimalism and a large amount of non-verbal communication and Seydoux more than delivers the goods. It’s a shame her taut performance is in such a fragmented and uneven production.
Dumont would have served himself and the audience a great deal had he included even a few morsels of France’s back story. Showing up at the top of her profession at the start of the movie is fine; not telling us how she reached such a position is frustrating. With just a minute or two of flashback depicting how France became famous would have added so much more to the overall impact of her journey, pro or con.
Presented in French and Farsi with English subtitles.
Director: Bruno Dumont
Stars: Léa Seydoux, Benjamin Biolay, Blanche Gardin, Emanuele Arioli, Gaëtan Amiel
Running Time: 2 hours, 13 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Release Date: Jan. 21, 2022
Rating: 3 out of 5