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R. Arpajou/Kino Lorber

France (2021)

At a press conference held by President Emmanuel Macron, the first question goes to famous and well-respected TV journalist France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux). Her question is so scorchingly insulting it takes the president a little while to answer, and as he does, France makes eye contact with her assistant, Lou (Blanche Gardin) at the side of the room. They egg each other on with increasingly obscene gestures, laughing in triumph, as he wriggles on her journalistic hook. It’s very clear writer-director Bruno Dumont is using real footage of Mr. Macron, edited together for the appearance of a real event with Ms. Seydoux C.G.I.-ed in – something American cinema hasn’t allowed itself to do with a sitting leader since the speech purportedly given by Bill Clinton in 1996’s “Contact.” This is by far the most interesting part of the movie.

From her very start, Ms. Seydoux has built herself an unusual career moving between supporting roles in international English-language blockbusters and leading roles in quirkier French-language ones. To international audiences she represents a sultry dash of Gallic spice; at home she is the superstar playing with her friends. You have to be very good and very well-liked indeed to be able to move around the cinematic landscape like this, so it’s a wonder that Ms. Seydoux seems so unhappy here. Was the movie as originally planned a satire with a bit more bite? Or was it more of a comedy, and the sourness came out in the making? Although even a comedy might have reconsidered the appalling sequence of France’s husband (Benjamin Biolay) and child in the car. Comedy isn’t funny when it’s punching down, when it’s flailing around without a real target, or when it’s hitting itself in the face, desperate for any kind of reaction at all.

Is this a satirical commentary on how France the nation sees itself? Or is it just an excuse to spend over two hours admiring Ms. Seydoux as she plays at being a journalist – asking serious questions to the bickering talking heads in her studio under giant footage of her face, bossing rebel fighters into posing with their guns for her cameraman, or having inelegant arguments about money with her unsatisfying intellectual husband? Their flat is full of tapestries and antique furniture in flower-filled rooms painted black, much like a gothic dollhouse. When she drives around the centre of Paris in her car, it’s filmed as if the car doesn’t have a roof, which oddly adds to the sense that she is a gilded bird in a gilded cage. At one point, she hits a young delivery driver, Baptiste (Jawad Zemmar), and her sense of responsibility for the hurt she’s caused makes her evaluate her own life. But as these revaluations take her to a mountain resort in Switzerland where Angela Merkel also is, (although the credits reassure us a lookalike was used), the sense that the movie’s big ideas might lead to an elegant point slowly slip away.

To have power in this movie you need only the appearance of power, and journalism is nothing more than the appearance of journalism. The emphasis on how France the person repeats her lines and refilms from more flattering angles, even under fire, is contrasted with the intrusion of the tabloid press in her personal life – although this metaphor doesn’t do much, not even in the depressing sequence at the end, where France the person frowns at another woman coming to a nasty public reckoning of her mistakes.

France the person’s clothes are the clue to this. Costume designer Alexandra Charles has her in plaid suits or multi-colored tops too old and brassy for her, like a cougar at lunch with her friends. This vulgar ’80s aesthetic is meant to be a throwback to a so-called easier time, when the nation wasn’t worrying itself sick about its shadow wars in Africa, or whether it has any responsibility for the people it runs over on its path to success. Ugh. The final sequence – not a spoiler – has France the person indifferently watch a stranger smash a vélib – a citibike – to pieces. The meaning is the illusion of meaning. As a metaphor for a nation it’s nothing but a snore.


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