"France" director Bruno Dumont on Léa Seydoux, digital media and how the "fake can generate truth"

Bruno Dumont spoke to Salon about his latest film about a French journalist who becomes a star, but abandons it all

Published December 9, 2021 4:30PM (EST)

France (Kino Lorber)
France (Kino Lorber)

"France" is the latest provocation from enfante terrible, Bruno Dumont, whose films, "Humanity," "Twentynine Palms," and "Hadewijch," among others, polarize viewers. Dumont is raising many interesting questions about journalism, politics, and cancel culture here that are sure to spark debate. 

France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux, from "No Time to Die") is a popular TV journalist in Paris who has developed a considerable reputation. In the opening scene, she asks President Macron a question about the "insurrectional state of French society" at a press conference. (A real event that was manipulated for the film). It goes viral, and France becomes a media darling. Her subsequent reports from warzones with armed loyalists confronting jihadists are ratings grabbers. 

While she enjoys the privilege in her life, her image takes a dive when she accidently hits Baptiste (Jawad Zemmar) with her car. She admits responsibility and makes amends, but the incident also prompts France to acknowledge her own unhappiness. She quits her TV gig, checks into a clinic in the Alps, and meets Charles (Emanuele Arioli), who is unaware of her fame. 

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Where "France" goes from there is best left for viewers to discover. But Dumont's film thoughtfully criticizes the media industry while also deftly addressing issues of capitalism, privacy, EU sovereignty, immigrants, and much more. 

The filmmaker spoke — with the assistance of interpreter Nicholas Elliott — with Salon about media, politics, and his new film, "France."

What struck me about your film is this idea of what is artificial and what is real? The character of France lives in a rarified world and uses her privilege for manipulation and calculation. What can you say about the film's themes of truth and illusion? I love the opening scene of Macron playing himself in a press conference that is both real and fake at the same time.

It shows you the extent to which fake can generate truth or reality. I think that "France" is, indeed, a very artificial film on a very artificial world — a digital world. But what I was trying to do in making the film is find the natural beyond the artifice, behind this lying, mendacious thing. Behind the artifice, there is a living heart, the heart of France, and all of us. That's what I'm interested in, this encounter we have in the modern world, of the artifice and this thing behind it, a heart. That's why I'm interested in her as a protagonist. If she were entirely artificial, I don't think I would be interested in her. What is interesting is that behind the artifice, there is this person who is moving and who touches us.

You liken the media to politicians here, but also tackle celebrity culture and our fascination with selfies and autographs. What observations do you have about the way TV personalities, as well as politicians, celebrities and even filmmakers are seen as gods in today's social media world? There is a fandom around France, but there is also a fandom around personalities, including, you, Bruno Dumont.

I think that there is a really surprising, stunning proximity today between the digital screen world and the world of cinema. Cinema is a fiction that generated the phenomenon of the movie star. What interests me today is that the digital world is repeating the writing or style or the narrative of cinema. The digital reality is told to us in a way that is a fiction. It reaches us as a fiction. Politicians on those screens are a fiction. Journalists are a fiction. In a sense, the media and cinema are doing same thing. France and Emmanuel Macron are cinema stars, they are movie stars whose narratives are being submerged in screens big and small.

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France as a character is enigmatic at times. She is powerful, determined, flawed, and sympathetic. I could argue that her guilt or privilege that makes her feel she deserves punishment. How did you conceive of her character?

I conceived the character from Léa Seydoux; because the starting point for this adventure was my meeting Léa Seydoux. There were two things: my interest in her status as a star and the natural woman that I met. I liked her hypersensitivity and paradoxically the simplicity that she has. There's a truth in her that we find in the contradiction between this star and this natural woman. I based the character of France on the artificial movie star, the artificial heroine that we were talking about earlier, and all of that is supported by something simple — Léa Seydoux's everyday life, notably her humor. She's a very funny person. The character was built entirely on that complexity and that contradiction. I'm used to working with natural and non-professional actors and there is a great deal of Léa Seydoux's natural and her nonprofessional aspect in the composition of the character of France.

Were you making any obvious illusions to the country that shares her name?

I think that yes, the first name is quite evocative of a whole country, but it's also rather accidental. The initial title for the film was "Par un demi-clair matin" (which translates as "One Half-lit Morning.") Since no one understood this title, I decided to name the film after its protagonist, and that of course gave it a connotation, which it's not a wrong connotation, so I don't have any problem with that. 

France "snaps" at one point in the film. She feels guilty, she combats depression, and she has an existential crisis. These are themes you examine in many of your films. What drives you to investigate these topics, and what experiences have you had yourself in this regard?

The answer is a little complicated but it's a complicated question. I think the theme of redemption is one of the great themes in Western culture and in the history of Western art. But what interests me in this film is that it allows me to work on the question of evil without entirely taking away the possibility of redemption or goodness. Except that our entire Judeo-Christian tradition is old-fashioned and has become somewhat irrelevant, or in the past.

What I find interesting, and what I look for, is a very small form of human sainthood. And I think that's what France's trajectory is. When she realizes the negativity or the wrongness of the path she is on, even though she considers for a time to use what she does to take on a kind of low-grade humanism — help homeless people, or help people in bad circumstances — she gives up on that, and she simply keeps being a journalist, but she is a journalist who has been elevated a little bit, a minimum, and this small elevation into real redemption is what I am interested in. It is a human redemption to rise where we are. We don't need to put a lamb on our shoulder and go off to seek truth. We find truth where we are. If I'm a filmmaker, it's to make better films. If I'm a journalist, it's to write better articles. This is a philosophical reflection which relates to the original title, which is a quote from Charles Péguy. What he is saying is that we search for the saint not up in sky but here on earth where we are. 

France suffers some setbacks, both personally and professionally in her career, but there are characters, such as Danièle (Annick Lavieville), whom France interviews that are interesting contrasts. What are your thoughts on victim culture, as well as cancel culture, at play in society today?

I think that's an absolutely fascinating question. It is what we here in France we call wokeism. It's a culture that we say has come from the United States, and it is now submerging the entire world. It is notably doing that through digital. Digital culture induces this society of wokeism through its binary simplistic nature. Wokeism is a puritanical, destructive society that has been taken over by puritans, modern-day Huguenots who look at the world in this way and it has become a kind of fascism. A fascism of right-thinking, and, one might say, political correctness.

The film takes place in that world of wokeism. France lives in that world. The film in many ways is like a photo-novel, a very cheesy and dumb, intentionally simplifying thing. Her need for love is dumb, idiotic. She herself is kind of dumb and idiotic. Through her wokeism, she does wake up, but her sainthood it's not a wokeism sainthood. She attains a rudimentary sainthood that is not dumb or idiotic at all. Danièle as a person who is in the real world. She says, "If we can't believe that someone who has done bad can do good, we are lost." That is the contrary of wokeism, which holds that it is not possible, in fact; if you do bad, then that's it. Danièle, who is in the truth of the natural, shows us that we can make up for evil, and we can reintegrate goodness. 

Baptiste is a catalyst for her wokeism. You address issues of capitalism, privacy, EU sovereignty, immigrants, and more. You have silly moments of France making rude gestures as she is about to report in a warzone. What can you say about your film's tone, which is satiric, but also at times comic? 

I think the film chooses to mix genres. We have great genres — comedy, romance, melodrama, etc. The film mixes them all together. They are like genres pushing at each other in the film, and this is a way to represent the grotesque of tragedy and of seriousness. Meaning, that there is nothing serious, there's nothing funny. All of this is all mixed up good, evil, comedy, and seriousness. That is something that interests me from an intellectual perspective. It helps me to avoid pontificating and not going into one genre or another. 

Both President Macron and even France talk about hope for a better future. But France won't even disclose what her political mindset is. Is your film asking viewers to be cynical towards the future and the image makers who are meant to give us hope?

"France" is not a sociological film. The character of France is like a filmic ectoplasm of us and who we are, and it is in that world of the film of us that is artificial and natural. What is represented in "France" is not the media, it is what and who we are. That's what cinema does — it heroizes the viewer. "France's" vocation is to represent us as we are, who we are. As for the rest, I'm not a prophet, I'm not a professor, and I'm not a priest. My job as a filmmaker is to reveal the world and uncover the world, and from that, viewers will go and vote as the wish and come to their own conclusions. We have to let cinema be cinema and not mix things up.

"France" is in theaters Friday, Dec. 10. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

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By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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