By far the most biting and ironic satire to premiere in Cannes competition this year — a divisive comedy whose cynicism was met with boos at the press screening — Bruno Dumont’s “France” doesn’t want to be liked. That’s more than can be said of its eponymous protagonist, France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux), the country’s top news anchor and a damning representation of the journalist-as-star phenomenon. Picture a cross between Anderson Cooper and Megyn Kelly, an attention-thirsty TV personality who beams when her followers tweet “France for president,” but tears up when a politician insults her backstage, reducing her to nothing more than “a pretty tool” for a profit-seeking news network.
France does a lot of crying, both on camera and off, in “France,” though Dumont is tricky enough about the tone of this mainstream-media critique — which plays fast and loose with classic melodrama tropes, packaged like the cold, sleek update to a 1940s “women’s picture” — that audiences can never be sure whether her tears are genuine or not. That will no doubt remind Americans of concerns the movie “Broadcast News” raised 34 years earlier, although in that case, “the devil” was a far more compelling character.
“France” opens with a cleverly staged press conference with French president Emmanuel Macron, edited to look as if France is really there, in the front row, hand-picked to lob the first bombshell — all of which suggests some kind of Borat-like stunt. But the acting style seems off: France can barely keep her composure as her brilliant but vulgar producer Lou (scene-stealing comedian Blanche Gardin, best known to Americans as Louis CK’s French partner) winks and makes exaggerated oral-sex gestures from the sidelines of the room. The pair’s comportment isn’t plausible, but that’s of no concern to Dumont, who’s never subscribed to traditional codes of “realism.”
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Right away, the filmmaker wants to confront audiences with the discrepancy between the image of authority and respect newscasters cultivate and the disrespectful way they conduct themselves. Later, hammering the same point, Lou bumps a switch in the control booth, accidentally broadcasting the unfiltered and totally inappropriate meta-chatter between the host and her producer as they joke about a boatload of immigrants France pretended to accompany on a dangerous sea crossing. If only her fans could hear the condescending “bock bock bock” noises France and Lou make behind the backs of the throngs who approach her for autographs in the street — crowds that can turn vicious as soon as their illusions are shattered.
Dumont has studied the media enough to get in a few genuinely effective jabs, though it’s hard to engage with the half of “France” that concerns itself with the character’s private life since she’s so cold and inscrutable. She lives in a posh Paris apartment garishly decorated to look like some kind of satanic art gallery, which she shares with less-famous husband Fred (Benjamin Biolay), whom she resents, and son Jo (Gaëtan Amiel), who takes a back seat to her career. Driving the boy to school one day, France bumps a scooter in traffic.
Compared with an over-the-top accident that occurs later in the film (that one piling on horrible details for darkly comedic effect), this fender-bender feels like no big deal, though France turns it into her latest humanitarian cause, going far beyond the call of duty to compensate the victim, Baptiste (Jawad Zemmar, one of those memorable-looking nonprofessionals Dumont loves to cast). Is she sincere or simply playing to the cameras, which materialize almost instantly at the scene of the accident? Or maybe she sees this as a kind of divine warning, a karmic close call, although Seydoux’s performance is too unreadable most of the time to know what the character is thinking.
France takes it upon herself to visit Baptiste at home, another strangely decorated apartment, this one much nicer than the stereotype audiences might expect of an immigrant family living in Paris (signifying what, that Baptiste doesn’t need her charity?). The pressure starts to be too much for France, who sneaks away to a clinic for the rich and famous to gain some perspective, falling for an undercover journalist (Emanuele Arioli) in the movie’s most unbelievable twist. After selling her story to the tabloids, the scumbag resurfaces, insisting that their “love” was real — which reads like a parody of Hollywood romances where such characters wind up together.
But if “France” is meant to be a sendup of classic screwball comedies, Dumont doesn’t seem like the screenwriter to pull it off. His dialogue blends wonky syntax with embarrassing clichés — not at all how French newscasters speak on air. Has he or Seydoux ever actually watched French TV? In reality, French TV anchors bring elegance and poise to their profession, delivering the headlines with an almost musical lilt, as opposed to the stiff, sullen energy of Seydoux’s performance, in which she seems to be channeling mid-career Catherine Deneuve.
Even the costuming and makeup seem off: Modern TV networks have a nasty habit of sexualizing their hosts, whereas France’s matronly wardrobe and unflattering lighting actively play against Seydoux’s Bond-girl image, suggesting that the character has somehow transcended the objectification. An awful lot of “France” remains too vague to reach meaningful conclusions, like the scene where a wealthy admirer corners her in the ladies’ room and asks whether she’s right- or left-wing. “What difference would it make?” de Meurs demurs, when in fact, everything depends on her answer.
Unlike other auteurs, Dumont has never proved that he knows how to do it “right,” which makes the uneven and ambiguous choices in “France” all the more maddening: Is he deliberately subverting expectations or just too clumsy to deliver the tone he’s going for? The entire project is set to the music of beloved French composer Christophe, whose signature melancholy vibe adds yet another weird counterpoint to all the competing layers of interpretation. For those willing to take the film seriously, there’s a lot here to unpack. The rest will probably just reach for the remote.