“France” is an eye-popping star turn by Léa Seydoux in search of a more coherent and pointed satire than the movie surrounding her.
Seydoux, one-time “Bond Girl,” much-honored co-star of “Midnight in Paris,” “”Blue Is the Warmest Color,” “The French Dispatch” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is well-cast as a glib telegenic beauty who holds the country she shares her name with transfixed, thanks to her provocative questioning of public figures, her canny pursuit of “attention” and her stunning blonde looks.
But writer-director Bruno Dumont’s meandering, not-entirely-aimless drama can’t zero in on a target and mostly fails to get to its point. It’s as if the director of a couple of recent French “Joan of Arc” epics sought a modern equivalent, a media martyr, a woman trapped in an existential crisis over fame. But his movie can’t settle on a tone as he goes places that Hollywood’s “Sullivan’s Travels,” “A Face in the Crowd,” “Broadcast News” and “Up Close and Personal” went before.
Seydoux is better than the movie. But her character’s uncertain values, ethics and frame of mind — as scripted — do her no favors.
France de Meurs is the fashion plate star of i-news, a French TV channel that everyone seems to watch. She is recognized everywhere, a catwalk-ready advert for herself and her programs, but an open-season invitation to a tsunami of personal-space invasions. Start to finish, “France” shows the French are no more immune to this mania for taking a selfie with, or simply cell-snapping away at the famous.
We meet her at a news conference where her dazzling wardrobe and front-row placement assure one and all that she is the first the president will call on. But when he makes his entrance, she’s chatting up a colleague, not standing up out of the same respect most other reporters do.
And when he makes an opening statement, she is exchanging looks, giggles and obscene gestures with her flippant-to-the-point-of-unprofessional producer Lou (Blanche Gardin). Her question is a classic “gotcha” provocation.
Regarding the “insurrectionist state” of the country, she asks (in French with English subtitles), and what he’s not doing about it, “are you heedless or powerless?”
Lou coached her on what to ask, and how to ask it. When the president responds, star anchor her back-row producer keep exchanging looks and gestures and giggling.
She defends herself later by suggesting that the public values her point of view, that “through my gaze” they get “A View of the World,” the name of her chat show, that they can identify with.
“But what about your need for the spotlight?” her interviewer wants to know. She has no answer for that.
We see her in action and realize she’s not the cartoonish caricature such figures often turn into in the movies. She is sharp, repeatedly correcting the spin a conservative anti-EU politician recites on her show.
We get a notion of how TV-news camera savvy she is when she starts filing reports from an unnamed West African country, a former French colony that’s fighting a civil war and choking the Mediterranean with refugees. She “directs” her camera operator, coaches and “stages” loyalist fighter poses, calls for “reverse angles” where she “acts” out the question she just asked.
And then she improvises, in a few takes, her stand-up closing statement for the package. She’s good at what she does.
At her spacious, art gallery chic home, she has a rebelling nine year old son and an older, sullen, semi-has-been novelist husband, Fred (Benjamin Biolay). She’s the one bringing home the bacon.
But a dinner party scene where “Fred” is mocked for a “retouched” photo on a book cover, where he’s subjected to impudent questions from the guests, or asked of France right in front of him, plays somewhat like the almost-comical press conference that opened the film. It’s not quite funny, not tart enough to sting. What is this movie trying to say, and where is it going?
France’s existential crisis comes when she distractedly knocks over a working immigrant on his motorbike in traffic. She starts weeping more often as she goes out of her way to atone for her sins, and tamp down a scandal that comes from it.
Lou may be better versed in such mishaps, reminding France at one point that “these things last 24 hours now.” As France has more chances to test that theory out — infidelity, blunders on air, etc. — she can’t stop taking it all to heart, as if she’s clinging to that “crime and punishment” media narrative of an earlier era.
The blunders/exposure that took down the anti-hero of “A Face in the Crowd” and got Dan Rather and Brian Williams yanked off the air might earn no more than a Jeffrey Toobin slap on the wrist, a Tucker Carlson “vacation” today.
Dumont puts France/Seydoux in plenty of situations that merit her “I can’t bear it any more” dismay. She tries to volunteer at a soup kitchen, and takes abuse not just from other volunteers, but from the homeless. Her constant mingling with the rich ruling class doesn’t immunize her from their disdain.
When France meets a guy at an exclusive German Swiss alpine spa, his seeming confusion at her “You don’t recognize me?” should put her on her guard. She knows how famous she is, and suffers for it.
Seydoux gives us gorgeous and perfectly-put-together “suffering” in ways that make the film never-less than watchable.
But Dumont’s film doesn’t provide a neat come-uppance/repentance for France’s “crimes” or a denouement that gives us any more idea of what we’ve just seen than the tale as it unfolded. This is just some stuff that somebody who craved fame had happen to her.
It takes a lot of nerve to title your French media satire “France.” What we see over the two hours of this film is Dumont losing that nerve, time and again.
Rating: unrated, profanity
Cast: Léa Seydoux, Blanche Gardin, Benjamin Biolay
Credits: Scripted and directed by Bruno Dumont. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 2:12