France is crying in Bruno Dumont’s latest feature. Incarnated by Léa Seydoux as the famed journalist France de Meurs, she is shot frequently in close-up, tears welling and streaming down her cheeks. Such images – glossy, melodramatic, showing one of France’s most internationally famous film stars – are hardly what we associate with Dumont. His ten features to date have been characterized by their naturalism and the unknown, imperfect faces of non-professional actors playing characters who, whether by social forces, madness or obsession, inhabit the social margins. France, released last year, offers an entirely different aesthetic and environment. France de Meurs is a celebrity news anchor and correspondent with a luxurious apartment in central Paris. And yet, by the film’s end, she has entered familiar Dumont territory in what is an unexpected turn, providing a rather brilliant final act that overshadows the first two.
In the opening scenes of France we are shown the catalyst for de Meurs’s tears: a car journey that knocked a motorcyclist to the ground, leaving him in a wheelchair and unable to continue working as a delivery driver. The accident generates a guilt that France cannot eradicate, whatever actions she takes to try to remedy her mistake. As she does so, she continues with her day job, heading off to various warzones and scenes of catastrophe to deliver her pieces to camera, microphone in hand, full of performed emotion. As a journalist it is difficult to watch these scenes. News correspondents in the field generally do not look as glamorous as a film star, and it is rare for reporters with a bulletproof vest emblazoned with PRESS and employed by a French broadcaster, or indeed any major news agency – much less their star anchor woman – to be authorized to enter war zones where there is a high risk of being caught in crossfire. Journalists do take such risks of course, but not always with the consent of their employer, and these are generally exceptions to the rule. (Marie Colvin, for example, famously lived on the edge during her missions for The Times. She died in the field in Syria in 2011.)
To be fair to Dumont, he did not intend France to be realistic: ‘the lines have been thickened… I’m showing the spectacle’. And he was not out to pierce illusions about the corporate media, doubting we harbour any. There are plenty of other films that have sought already to do just that: most famously, Sidney Lumet’s chilling and prescient Network (1976). Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up (2021), Mark Mylod’s The Menu (2022)and Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness (2022) are recent examples of the sub-genre. Dumont’s film possesses some familiar satirical elements, most notably thanks to France’s assistant Lou, played by stand-up comedian Blanche Gardin, who is just as disconcerting as an actress. ‘That’s television: the worst is the best’, she tells her boss when watching some harrowing footage aboard a migrant boat. ‘It’s a pity nobody fell in the water, that would’ve been even better.’
Although France is an outlier in Dumont’s oeuvre, his trajectory has been a series of zigzags. A set of gritty, violent early films have been followed by oddball comedies, historical dramas that incorporate musical elements and murder mysteries. Each has played with the codes of genre, such that our expectations are never met. The result is an unclassifiable body of work, one that ranges from his debut feature about a gang of motorcycle rebels set in Dumont’s hometown (La vie de Jésus), to a psychological drama about a girls’ obsessive love for Jesus (Hadewijch) and a rock musical based on Joan of Arc’s childhood and set to text by Charles Péguy (Jeannette).
One common property that draws these films together is an interest in the spiritual or sacred beyond the formal institutions of religion. This might take the form of a connection with nature, a passion that is treated by society as unsound or a higher form of consciousness attained through art. Religion was a feature of Dumont’s young life. He was born in 1958 into a Catholic family in Bailleul, just a few kilometres from the Belgian border. The third of four boys, he has described his upbringing as quiet and ordinary. His father was a doctor, and he would often accompany him on his rounds, sitting in the car in the courtyards of farmhouses observing the comings and goings. Such ostensibly banal spaces feature frequently in his films and can even act as the central location, as in his supremely weird television series P’tit Quinquin (2014).
Dumont discovered film as a young boy thanks to Saturday night visits to the cinema, quickly pledging to become a director. Failing the entrance exam for the IDHEC, France’s main film school at the time, he instead studied philosophy at Lille University, followed by the Sorbonne, learning how to make films on the side. After a stint as a lecturer, he worked from 1986 to 1993 making corporate publicity – filming sweets being manufactured, tractors assembled, lawyers at work, ham, bricks and coal in production. Dumont dismisses the artistic interest of these early films, but his later work is marked by an affinity with the industrial environments that he encountered. He is, he said in an interview, ‘very moved by the sound of machines…the vibration, the acceleration of an engine, there are connections with human life, we have these ups and downs too’.
Dumont’s interest in the sacred or spiritual has interesting echoes with the work of Robert Bresson, whom he cites as a central influence. To this end, like Bresson he has generally preferred non-actors who deliver their lines either without much emotion or in an unpolished way:
I got rid of the institution, but not the sacred. After my studies I was both happy and sad to abandon religion. But I soon felt that cinema had something religious about it. Art is the exact place, the perfect place, for spiritual life: it’s the most in-depth and the most accurate to represent it.
The sacred dimension comes late in France. We shift gear in the final act, when France visits a rural home to interview a woman whose husband has been revealed a serial killer. She is played by a non-professional actress and her closing dialogue with Séydoux as they sit at her dining table is a reminder of how original Dumont can be as a director, and the potential of this film to examine the changing nature of contemporary journalism. In these last scenes we see a real journalist at work: meeting people and hearing them out as they give their testimony, remaining receptive and mostly absent from the story. Closing as it does, France provides a note of hope that France de Meurs may become that reporter. But we leave her too soon to find out.
Read on: Emma Fajgenbaum, ‘An Aphorist of the Cinema’, NLR 104.