Léa Seydoux in France. (Kino Lorber)

Bruno Dumont examines media-induced mass hysteria.

Bruno Dumont knows there’s more than one way to skin a media rascal. His new movie France is titled after Parisian TV interviewer France de Meurs (played by Léa Seydoux), who hosts the popular news program A View of the World and is considered France’s top journalist. She shares the name of the country she represents, a trick that expands Dumont’s usual spiritual examination of human struggle into multileveled melodrama, institutional parody, social critique, and psychological farce.

In the opening scene, where France publicly flirts with the nation’s president, Dumont intercuts an actual press conference with Emmanuel Macron — a Zelig-like moment when Macron calls her by name and the TV star giggles at her own esteem, trading conspiratorial glances with her assistant on the sidelines. The absurdity resembles the fawning of the White House press corps, yet France never falls for the politician’s flattery or his official blather about “the insurrectional state of French society.” No other 2021 movie feels so eerily contemporary.

France is a work of head-spinning mastery, using obvious green-screen technology to show the celebrity journalist on various treks to global trouble spots in the Middle East, somewhere in the Sahel. She’s intrepid, dodging demands from co-workers, fans, and her competitive husband (Benjamin Biolay) and distant son. These challenges contribute to her spiritual turmoil. Her facial expressions change from bemused to excited, from anger to stress, drawing you into her developing personal crisis.

For Americans, France brings to mind Lara Logan, Christiane Amanpour, Katie Couric, Nora O’Donnell, Martha Raddatz, and all the media figures never held to account for their positions of privilege.  “Journalists’ demagoguery surpasses that you accuse politicians of,” France is told. The movie probes that damnable casual attitude about having co-equal political influence.

That’s why Dumont presents France through several genre signifiers: Her seduction at a sanitarium by a handsome journalist (Emanuele Arioli) evokes Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. Her guilt-ridden charity to a Muslim youth, accidentally knocked off his messenger bike by her, suggests a humane version of the alien encounter in Michael Haneke’s Caché. The stained-glass memorial in her ornate home resembles Fassbinder’s Petra Von Kant, but it also compares to the numinous everyday trials of Rossellini’s Europa 51. The vagaries of celebrity life cause her aide-de-camp to enthuse, “This is how icons are made! You’re covered in mud. You rise again. People will love you!”

It’s madness — Dumont’s favorite theme — shown with his unique mystification. Any romanticism burns away through his emphasis on eccentric behavioral defects. (Blanche Gardin as sycophantic Lou is hilarious in her excitement over “explosive” social-media responses.) In a climactic close-up, Seydoux’s features contort into a teary nervous collapse, but she’s next seen in full makeup against vibrant TV projections, images of Brechtian complexity. Imagine Network’s Howard Beale given the intensity of an Ingmar Bergman crack-up. (“I should be happy but I’m not.”) Seydoux’s erotic bluster has made her a pet of hipster filmmakers from Wes Anderson to Cary Joji Fukunaga, but Dumont uses her appeal to heighten our awareness of the media’s false impressions.

Through Seydoux, Dumont captures the spiritual crisis behind our ongoing, media-induced mass hysteria. France heeds an interview subject who warns, “The golden age of nations is over, time to build a new social order.” Her professional life complements the dictatorial regime mandates happening around the world. At work, filming those routine TV cutaways that Broadcast News faked as a major revelation, France updates that film’s exploitation of sexual assault. TV dishonesty never changes.

This realization of Millennial media cynicism perfectly balances the insight of Leos Carax’s Annette. Seydoux’s TV visage is Dumont’s window into her soul. His heroine is an icon of the zeitgeist.

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