Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 10, 2021 7:55 am 
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Dumont goes wrong - but it's sui generis eye candy

Bruno Dumont's France was greeted with boos in Competition at Cannes, and this is inevitable. The distinctive writer-director is out of his element in this film. It's an element that might have drawn more of an audience, a flashy-looking picture related to French politics with a glamorous star, Bond's Madeleine Swann, Léa Seydoux, currently also posing in the nude on a pedestal for a mad artist in Wes Anderson's The French Despatch, here playing a major TV news star in crisis. It's not a success, and uncertain whether it will enhance Seydoux's reputation.

But France should not be taken merely as a media meltdown misfire. It has the unique twist of this auteur. He's doing what only he does - the peculiar use of non-actors, the long stares, the drawn-out embarrassing moments. I always take a particular interest in sets and costumes where possible, and the glamorously sepulchral Place des Vosges apartment and the succession of fabulous outfits worn by France de Meurs (Séydoux's character) are really eye-popping. (Watch Imdb's film clip career review and see if you don't think Léa Seydoux is a star. But I see from the AlloCiné spectator comments on this film that some French viewers still think she is successful because of her French media royalty "lineage" rather than her talent and hard work.)

I don't know about you, but much of my pleasure in watching No Time to Die was in ogling Léa. She's more cruelly seen here, but endlessly watchable for the weeping, the ivory skin, the clothes, till it may start to seem really endless because this film, at over two hours, is too long. Séydoux plays a character who deserves cruelty. France de Meurs is a pampered star who treats every hotspot shoot as a photo opportunity. She directs it. She tells Afghan freedom fighters what to say, where to look, and constantly redoes her lines. Then she's back in the huge glittering Paris studio, center stage (it's unrealistic in making this look like a one-man show and retro in its omission of other platforms and social media), taking bows for the "danger" she has faced.

The succession of such sequences is interrupted along the way by an incident: while she is driving in Paris traffic, France rear ends a motorbike messenger called (oddly, since he's Arab) Baptiste (Jawad Zemmar). He gets a dislocated kneecap; France gets a dislocated career. She's never the same; but maybe her success had palled already. We've seen her clammy, less-famous writer husband Fred (Benjamin Biolay) - in the museum-quality crypt they occupy, and their bitchy nine-year-old boy Jo (Gaëtan Amiel), failing in school for no reason. And her fun, but downward-pulling assistant Lou - comic Blanche Gardin, who French viewers all agree belongs to another, more slapstick movie.

Much of France is about fame and the toll it takes. Everywhere the superficially tough and chilly protagonist goes she must sign autographs and pose for selfies, and it all makes her wind up being fragile and claustrophobic. When she encounters someone who's never heard of her, as she does with the young Greek and Latin teacher Charles Castro (Emanuele Arioli) she meets at an expensive mountain spa so exclusive Angela Merkel is there, she'd better beware. After paying out €40,000 to Baptiste and his parents, whose digs don't look that poor, and who're terribly flattered by her attentions, France walks away from her job. But then she has a brilliant idea: to come back to it! And then. . . something else happens, something bigger, and yet more distant, something involving a spectacular, drawn-out car accident. There's not so much of a plot here, you see, as the series of media-star set pieces with a couple of dramatic interruptions, all of which give Léa Seydoux reasons to turn on her tear ducts. As I write about the film, I like it less and less; but its texture in the watching is pleasurable and holds you even if it drags a bit. The AlloCiné spectators or trade critics who say it has no flow or continuity may be forgetting, or not know, how that has always true for this director, how the longeurs can come at any moment, and stun you.

For the average viewer France may be a bit more watchable than many of Dumont's other films, but if you come to it not knowing his work you won't know what you're seeing. The interest here is how each scene pushes the edge of absurdity and extreme. (It's also been commented how unrealistic the blending of background and foreground is in driving sequences, and in the manipulated opening one where France and Lou, making sophomoric hand gestures and mouthing rude comments, are pasted into a bumbling press conference clip of Macron.) Also typical of Dumont are the various uses of slightly-off-kilter non-actors, once the director's only source of cast, in news location scenes, in Baptiste and his mom and pop, and even in the affect of France's would-be lover, even though Emanuele Arioli isn't technically a non-actor, who resembles a character in a film by Eugène Green, and through him Robert Bresson, often cited as Dumont's cinematic father.

This is the most "mainstream" and "star vehicle" of Bruno Dumont films but still a Bruno Dumont film. I'm resisting - and willingly, because it's still always a wild, interesting ride - the temptation to say he should have stuck with the non-actor-fueled, gruelingly brutal and sexually blunt material shot in his native North that Dumont began with in La Vie de Jésus and L'Humanité. After that he did Flandres and then the troubling, puzzling Hadewijch and Hors Satan. He's kept the shock value by slipping into other genres. He did the biopic with Binoche, Camille Claudel (I missed it), and started using more than one name actor with Slack Bay/Ma Loute, and then did the Joan of Arc pictures, and on the side the quirky, comical and cute "Little Quinquin" oddities for TV. It's in this context that France has come. Admittedly with ab bit of a dull thud. But one waits with bated breath for what comes next from this sui generis film artist.

France, 133 mins., debuted at Cannes in Competition Jul., 2021, also showing in some major world festivals including Palic, Serbia, Toronto, New York, Hamburg, Busan, Ghent, Vienna, SIngapore and Taiwan. French release Aug. 25. AlloCiné press rating 3.3 /66% (36 reviews) Metacritic rating: 51% (8 reviews). US theatrical release Dec. 10.

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