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The film France is a lot of things but let’s start with what it’s not. The IMDb says “comedy drama” – but there’s not even a smile to be had out of writer/director Bruno Dumont’s latest. Other suggestions out there include that it’s a satire on the news profession. This is hard to credit even as an idea, unless you’re entirely unaware of the way TV news reports are put together. Assembling “packages” from various takes, cutaways, drop-ins, and so on is not the same as “fake” news, which sets out to deceive rather than enlighten. The other strange notion doing the rounds is that France is a state-of-the-French-nation drama. Blame the title for that one.

Léa Seydoux is the star and almost the entire focus of this strange film about hugely successful TV journalist France de Meurs – one part newsgathering machine, one part glamourpuss, one part rock star – who has a crisis of conscience after knocking a guy off his scooter while driving to work. After slaloming about mentally for a while, she eventually quits her job and goes off to have a full-blown breakdown in a polite alpine sanatorium, where she meets a guy and starts an affair with him.

Love blossoms, recovery beckons, she returns triumphant to her job, the end? Not so fast. Dumont has other fish to fry, first giving us exactly the story we’re expecting and then pulling the rug out from under expectations, only to then pull it out again with some late-story spectacular death and disaster – if you’re looking for a fabulously staged car crash on a rocky mountain road, France has it for you.

France cries a hell of a lot in this film, on the TV screen and off it, and Seydoux gets to act on several levels – brittle TV star on top and damaged human below. She is perfectly cast and gets to flex acting muscles unflexed in many a movie where she’s just required to look good. She’s abetted by Blanche Gardin as France’s super-competent but slightly fly assistant – there’s warm, lovely and entirely plausible interaction between the two of them.

France out in a warzone
And in a warzone

The Covid pandemic caused first a bottleneck and then a logjam in the already stop/go world of movie production. Which explains to an extent why if you look up Seydoux on the IMDb, you’ll find this this is one of six movies she appeared in during 2021/22.

Which is quite a tally, though it’s worth remembering that France was started in 2019, before the coronavirus interfered with schedules. Even so, Seydoux is working at a prodigious rate of late and most of her recent movies have been big hitters. Arnaud Desplechin’s Deception, a two hander. The monster production schedule of a Bond movie, No Time to Die. Mia Hansen-Løve’s One Fine Morning, in which Seydoux was again the lead, and David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, another demanding role alongside Kristen Stewart and Viggo Mortensen.

She’s as intense here as she was in any of those but here the intensity is the point, to an extent. Dumont’s films – most explicitly in Joan of Arc, Outside Satan, Hadewijch – focus on obsession, idolatory, zealotry, faith, dedication and madness and how any one of these extreme states of engagement can easily shade into any one of the other.

Hence the other key character, Charles Castro (Emanuele Arioli), a fellow recoveree she meets at the sanatorium who has never heard of this superstar TV journo as famous for her warzone reporting as for her chairing of intellectual discussion, and who falls for her in ways that don’t seem entirely healthy.

Love, tears, passion, dedication, breakdown, for all the emotion suggested by the material, Dumont’s movie is a strangely underpowered beast, perhaps best admired for its sharp performances and its superficialities – France’s wardrobe! The décor of her house! Search for the comedy in vain.

France – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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