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  • Ravi Swami

"France", Dir: Bruno Dumont, 2021

Criterion Channel is premiering "France" starring Leah Seydoux as TV news anchor "France De Meurs" in a delayed release due to the Covid pandemic and was originally completed in 2019 with an official launch at Cannes in 2021.

Seydoux will be most familiar to non-Francophile audiences after appearing in the most recent film in the Bond franchise, "No Time To Die" as the obligatory female interest and where her rather undemanding role makes much use of her naturally pained demeanour to portray Bond's love interest with a tragic and traumatic past.

In "France" she portrays a glamorous news anchor and investigative reporter "France De Meur" with her own show that reaches prime time audiences keen to follow her no-holds- barred and incisive news reports from the front lines of war zones or in confronting leading politicians, including in the opening scenes, the current President, Emmanuel Macron, at a press conference - achieved convincingly via digital post work.

Shadowed by her producer and co-conspirator "Lou" (Blanche Gardin), France is encouraged by her to put Macron on the spot from the front row with the desired result that her social media stats shoot up as Lou monitors them from the sidelines on her smartphone.

This establishes France as a very 21st Century media personality who uses social media to gauge audience responses with the kind of immediacy unavailable to an earlier generation of reporters who were dependant upon printed media days after actual events.

The film seeks to show how, though useful, it can become a dangerous tool in allowing news items to be manipulated and Lou is portrayed as something of a loose cannon whispering in France's ear in order to get the big story out before her competitors.

Running parallel with this plot, which is reminiscent of the film "Network" that similarly exposed the darker side of TV news, is the breakdown of France's private life as her work takes her away from her writer husband "Fred" (Benjamin Biolay) and young son, added to which is a commentary on career women who are more successful than their partners and how this can cause ruptures in relationships.

We follow France as she navigates dangerous war zones with a film crew and it soon becomes apparent that the urgent tone of front line reporting is very much an artifice where France directs shoots involving bemused guerrilla fighters or refugees fleeing war-torn areas in dinghies and the combination of knowing that the reports are partially fabricated for effect and her crumbling personal life causes her to have a breakdown on live TV - in a similar fashion to that portrayed by Peter Finch in "Network" - as events begin to play on her conscience.

However, Lou convinces her that this is great for ratings and her social media stats, even after she decides to quit her highly paid job due the pressure of being in the spotlight and she returns to host her show after a brief hiatus to recover at an exclusive rehabilitation retreat in the French Alps.

Resigned to the fact that her marriage is to all extents and purposes, over, she relishes the anonymity out of the public eye, though her fellow rehab inmates are all either the super-rich or celebrities themselves.

It is here that she meets and falls in love with "Charles Castro" (Emanuele Arioli), superficially a student of philosophy who enjoys reeling off poetry and after a romantic walk through the snow they spend the night together.

However, all is not what it seems and it turns out that Castro has been paid money to fall in love with France in order for a newspaper to run an exclusive story on her whereabouts following her sudden departure from her job.

Horrified at the betrayal, France ditches Castro, who then proceeds to stalk her after apologising and declaring his love for her.

The sense that events are spiralling out of control for France reaches a peak when Lou accidentally knocks a lever in a live broadcast suite that broadcasts an intended off-camera conversation between herself and France that reveals the artifice behind an exclusive news report where France breaks down in tears over the plight of refugees.

France storms out of the studio as enraged members of the public harangue her outside the studio for her dishonesty and by now she is convinced that both her career and personal life are in tatters.

The final karmic blow comes when her ex-husband and son are driving into the mountains and their car suddenly loses control and crashes down a mountain side, killing both instantly.

The final twist occurs when Castro re-enters her life by visiting her in her well-appointed Paris apartment, pleading to be allowed back into her life after being a pest and she reluctantly allows him to, despite his earlier charade. Having lost her family, job and reputation she finds solace in Castro's arms though the film concludes on a bitter sweet note was they witness a violent thug trash a chained up bicycle before threatening them and running off.

France's calamitous downfall is portrayed as a kind of rough justice and I struggled to think of any real world equivalents - only one came to mind and that was Ulrike Jonsson who likewise started her career as a popular news anchor before several very public breakdowns and disastrous personal life that was laid bare for TV audiences and magazines.

The other strand of the film is it's often humorous and a slightly unconvincing portrayal of the mechanics of live news reporting that only ever feels authentic when France reverts to covering local special interest stories like the murder of a young girl by a farmer, by setting up an interview with his wife, though even here the film crew are directed by her to manipulate footage for effect and it is only later when they visit a memorial to the young girl that France is moved to reflect on events occurring locally and not on some remote foreign shore, and the need for truth.

The director makes full use of Seydoux's distinctive features, often requiring her to look sadly directly at the camera as if probing the audience while successfully conveying a sense of impending tragedy.

Overall I didn't feel that it was entirely successful since it seems to hover between black comedy and an examination of the slow creep of the manipulation of news media via social media platforms, and the cult of personality, but it's worth a look for Seydoux's performance and inscrutably sullen expression.

"France", Dir: Bruno Dumont, 2021

Criterion Channel

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