Cannes 2021 review: France (Bruno Dumont)

Are you right- or left-wing?” A loaded question these days, but in Bruno Dumont’s France the answer is a remarkably simple counter question: “Would it make a difference?” That gets to the heart of Dumont’s cynical, acerbic satire of politics, the media, France’s upper crust, French cinema, and basically France as a whole. A satire in which all of France is a stage on which the main players can act out their small dramas to the fawning masses while at the same time ignoring the real issues, and in which everything is an act, to the extent that when the protagonist is suddenly hit by real emotions she doesn’t know what to do with them.

That protagonist is France de Meurs, played with just the right amount of overdone pathos needed for the role by French star Léa Seydoux. France is a widely popular journalist and media personality who divides her time between being the host of a daily political talk show and being in the trenches of war-torn areas to make hard-hitting news reports (a first sign that this film isn’t going for realism: a report about Tuareg rebels shot in the morning is the subject of discussion on the show she’s hosting the same night). Married to a successful novelist, raising a perfect child, living in a large (albeit garish) Parisian apartment, and moving in France’s elite circles, France seems to have it all. This all changes when she hits a young, under-privileged man in traffic, causing a dislocated kneecap. Suddenly guilt washes over France, and with the guilt come unfamiliar emotions and unfamiliar behavior, and eventually depression. A stint at an Alpine retreat looks like a fresh start, as she falls in love with a young man who claims he has no idea who she is, but betrayal by her new lover is what really puts her back in business. The business of faking it to score.

France is a lot of things (like, a lot of things), but subtle it is not. When it comes to ridiculing France’s elite, whether it is politicians, political talking heads, journalists, bankers, or the artistic intelligentsia, Dumont swings his satirical sledgehammer hard and often, always with the idea that there really is no difference where in the political spectrum these people fall: they are all, for lack of a better word, scam artists. Seydoux’ character makes heartfelt reports, but the heartfelt part is totally fake, as those reports are heavily directed for maximum effect. Pundits on different ends of the political spectrum verbally rip each other apart on her show, but are the best of friends as soon as the camera is off. “You think they’re fucking?” France asks her PA Lou (a hilarious bootlicker played by comedienne Blanche Gardin, a veritable scene stealer every time she is on-screen). In the film’s opening scene France takes a jab at French president Emmanuel Macron, footage of one of his press conferences cleverly edited into the film, yet deliberately ‘off’ in the technical sense; it makes him out to be an idiot slipping in his own verbal diarrhea. And at an elite dinner party a banker throws out empty rhetoric about the virtues of capitalism and dying a poor man while choking on expensive wine.

France questions, nay, flat out denies people’s sincerity throughout society in an attack on what political correctness really means: saying what is de rigueur at the time, even if in reality it’s hollow phrasing and not a reflection of one’s real thoughts on the matter. And the masses eat it up, because the film doesn’t stop there: it shows everyone not part of France’s upper in-crowd as simpletons whose main goal is to get a selfie with people like France de Meurs. We all have a role to play, argues Dumont, and nothing in this world is sincere anymore. That is why France suffers an identity crisis when suddenly her emotions are real and she doesn’t know what to do with them. It is a refreshing discovery for her, yet soon to be squashed when she finds out her lover has betrayed her by, again, playing a role.

But Dumont is on a roll as he takes potshots at French cinema as well. Characters like France’s husband Fred (Benjamin Biolay at his most ‘intellectual’) or her lover Charles (Emanuele Arioli) are parodies of archetypical French characters, and with Seydoux’ over-emphasized emotions France’s penchant for melodrama is successfully ribbed here. The actors lay it on thick, lest we think this is all played straight, but to be honest Dumont’s screenplay and mise-en-scene already took care of that. Improbable events leading to equally improbable human behavior spell it out that the director’s tongue is firmly in his cheek, even though that doesn’t take the bite out of France‘s criticism of his country’s political and media landscape, and indeed of every one of us (well, the French at least, right? Right?). As a film France is messy, but lands enough hits and is uproariously funny enough to make its attack on fake political correctness stick, regardless whether said correctness is coming from the left or the right. Because indeed, it does not make a difference anymore.