A Motionless Moue: Leaving the work of satire behind, ‘France’ morphs into an existential study about the nature of stardom and the effects of fame

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NEW WORD A ‘moue’ is a pouting expression used to convey annoyance or distaste.

The star of Bruno Dumont’s France is not, as the trailer suggests, Léa Seydoux (No Time to Die). The French actress does appear in every frame of his two-hour-and-thirteen-minute movie, except for one strenuous, melodramatic interlude. But it’s Seydoux’s painted lips that make a stronger impression than Dumont’s tonally fractured story. Like the Cheshire Cat’s grin, they have an independent life of their own. When an exchange between Seydoux and another actor ends, the director holds the camera on her for a minute or more in silence. Her vivid, motionless moue is centered on the screen, defiantly withholding the character’s inner life.

Applied in a range of striking colors, from berry to burgundy to blush, her lips inform the audience that the character, a television newscaster named France de Meurs, is a meticulously composed construction. The foundation on her flawless complexion is creamy and pale. It transforms her face into a kabuki mask. Makeup is France’s carapace. It protects her from the legions of leering viewers who tune in to her nightly broadcast. This mask also prevents her from expressing her pent-up emotions. The weight of her maquillage is protecting and smothering her.

And the words that escape from her lips are just as artificial. For the first 20 minutes of France, Dumont (L’humanité, 1999) has written a satirical take on 21st century television news. He provides France with a producer who behaves, at times, like a confidante, and at other times like a condescending nanny. Lou (Blanche Gardin) performs as both a sycophant, cooing over France’s wardrobe choices, and as a sadistic mistress who must simultaneously tame and stoke her star’s narcissism. After a segment airs, Lou is glued to the responses on social media. She behaves the way most influencers do, believing that her self-important bubble is changing the world.

Unfortunately, Dumont gets the particulars of broadcast news wrong. Producers and hosts have a symbiotic relationship. They are in constant dialogue with each other before a story airs. Although Lou doesn’t accompany France on her remote reporting trips to the Middle East, an actual producer would never allow a segment to air without first reviewing it in the edit room. Quizzically, Lou does just that.

Lou and France also work for a network that’s a ghost town. There’s no executive producer or any other news editor who oversees, or, at the very least, comments on their work. France is supposed to be the most famous TV news broadcaster in the country—but Lou is the only gatekeeper for the content they make. Television, as Dumont takes pains to point out, is assembled—as is a film. It takes a team of people to produce a finished piece. I kept thinking, “Where is everybody else?”

France’s narrative arc changes gears when Dumont loses interest in the farcical elements of TV journalism. During rush hour traffic one morning, France accidentally hits a man on his scooter. When she visits him at the hospital later, her mask seems to come off. For a moment, it looks as if we’ll see the genuine woman who’s been trapped, and mournfully so, inside of her public persona.

After the accident, Dumont leaves France’s professional world behind to concentrate on her personal one. At home, her ghoulish husband is a self-interested author who’s emotionally indifferent to his wife. They are not, to say the least, an affectionate pair, and their son, not unexpectedly, is a spoiled brat. She’s lost herself inside their gilded apartment, an expensive hall of mirrors. Underneath one of France’s masks is yet another mask. In her mind, in her increasingly warped perception of reality, each reflected self is being filmed and readied for public consumption.

Leaving the work satire behind, France morphs into an existential study about the nature of stardom and the effects of fame. Everywhere France shows up, in restaurants or in parks, people ask to take a photo with her. Despite her palpable reluctance to do so, she repeatedly obliges every stranger’s request. She understands that smiling and saying “yes” is part of the job description. But when Dumont halts the action and holds the camera on de Meurs’s mouth, he’s conflating the character with Léa Seydoux, the alluring James Bond movie star.

Seydoux is steadfast in performing the role Dumont has laid out for her. Mais, mon dieu! It’s remarkable that she manages to credibly inhabit France’s skin while he switches genres on her at least three times over. After two solid decades of reality television, France argues that the undereducated masses absorb television, and the gaping spectacle of news, without any critical-thinking skills. As a symbolic representation of her nation, France is smart and stylish but naive and shallow. She’s enraptured and oppressed by her own glamorous image.

“France” opens in Bay Area theaters on Jan. 7.