Even in the grittier, more dourly ascetic, first films that he made in the 90s, Bruno Dumont has always wrestled with Big Picture questions about human nature, spirituality, and the conditions of reality within the context of French history and nationhood. In La vie de Jésus (1997), Dumont’s debut, an unemployed and mentally-ill teenager is a Christ figure whose corruption assumes sexual and violent extremes, and over a decade later, in 2009’s Hadewijch, a freakishly devout young Catholic woman, an avatar for the eponymous 13th century mystic and poet, becomes involved with Islamic fundamentalists. These mystical aggrandizements of the French working class, the everyday bourgeoisie, and the immigrant communities that to this day remain a point of political contention in France, go hand in hand with Dumont’s later portraits of martyrous historical figures who loom large in the French imaginary—think Camille Claudel (Camille Claudel, 1915) and Joan of Arc (Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc and Joan of Arc).
With such a lofty title, France would then seem to be a distillation of Dumont’s ongoing project, subsuming the nation into one larger-than-life individual: Léa Seydoux’s France, a beloved news anchor and reporter extraordinaire. Dumont deconstructs the visual language of the news media by showing how France assembles her reports, as in one both troublesome and comic scene when we see her report from an active war zone and direct members of an armed militia as if they were actors or photography subjects. The film, however, is less a satirical critique of the contemporary media than an exploration of the modern condition, wrought as it is by the smoke and mirrors of digital technologies, mechanisms of spectacle not unlike the cinema itself. What then, Dumont asks, does it mean to be the star of such a show? How does one impart real experience and real emotion within such an obvious fiction? When, at the height of her fame, France hits a moped delivery man named Baptiste with her car, she plunges into a series of charged personal trials presented in incongruously absurd fashion. Yet her tears persist, not as cynical renderings of inauthentic emotion, but as utterly cinematic markers of a passionate interiority, one that perseveres in spite of the modern world’s tricks, its endless artifice.
NOTEBOOK: What was your starting point for France?
BRUNO DUMONT: Léa Seydoux said she wanted to work with me. I didn’t know her at the time, so we arranged a meeting where I observed her. I wrote the screenplay based on what I perceived of her in that meeting. This is typically how I work with non-professional actors—I sculpt their characters in their image.
NOTEBOOK: What stood out to you about Léa?
DUMONT: I was interested in her through the lens of her stardom, her stature as a movie star. I think there’s a correspondence between the psychology of the movie star and the relationship that viewers have with cinema. In the past, I’ve worked with Juliette Binoche [Camille Claudel, 1915; Slack Bay] and Fabrice Luchini [Slack Bay], but even in my work with amateur actors, I find that there’s always something dormant within these actors. The camera brings it out. It star-ifies them, makes them cinematic. That’s something you find in the digital realm, as well, and I felt that Léa was an ideal person to embody the television star.
NOTEBOOK: “France” comes across as a kind of critique of the media, but I’m not so sure that reading entirely squares with your concerns. I sense that you’re getting at something much more slippery about the way the visual language of the news and its construction of “facts.”
DUMONT: The film is an attempt to explain the relationship between spectacle news and cinematic spectacle. That connection is established by showing you the disturbing way in which the news is prepared, which demonstrates how reality is actually fiction. The news is a kind of fiction. How is it that a person—Léa’s France—can live such a compromised life? We see her as an accomplice to this fiction-generating industry, then she has a revelation. She becomes aware of the industry’s turpitude and ultimately finds grace and redemption. Throughout the film, we see her tested. The film is a mystical experience in the “real” world of media that is itself an artificial story.
NOTEBOOK: I was struck by the amount of crying Léa does, and how prominently you depict her tears. I found it very classical, like Renée Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.
DUMONT: France, the character, is practically a robot. She’s a media star, which comes very close to being inhuman. I’m concerned with her awakening. I wanted to pierce her robot armor and show the heart within her being moved. The tears were not originally in the screenplay, but when I saw how easy it is for Léa to cry, I exploited that skill of hers. The tears are used to counterbalance her roboticism, and demonstrate that she is, in fact, not entirely a lost cause. And tears are quintessentially cinematic ways of demonstrating a character’s humanity.
NOTEBOOK: What were you trying to achieve by having France speak to Emmanuel Macron, with footage of him that seems to be drawn from real-life? How did you construct this scene?
DUMONT: It’s a scene of mystification. We received authorization to shoot in the Élysée—the French presidential palace—in their press conference room. We had to find the right angles for Macron, and the right questions that would make the mystification possible. I watched three hours of Macron’s press conferences and located the possible entry points for this substitution. We cut what we shot with footage from this real press conference from about two years ago, which goes to show you can make something real with something fake and vice versa.
NOTEBOOK: I’d like to talk about the terrific car crash scene. On the one hand, it’s pretty ridiculous and absurd how the accident is drawn out and gets increasingly worse, and yet the way you capture the moment, the absence of diegetic sound, also makes it feel sublime.
DUMONT: It needs to be said that the film has a kind of narrative that very quickly becomes what in France we call un roman-photo, or a photo novel, a story told entirely through photos. It’s a melodrama full of tears, emphatic, and over the top. That ethos reaches its pinnacle in this scene that shows the death of France’s husband and child in a very exaggerated way. It’s an exploration of how the grotesque exists in tragedy. It’s a relationship of degrees, which has interested me in cinema for a long time. So you’re absolutely right to point out this apparent contradiction, that there’s something tragic in what’s funny, and funny in what’s tragic. My entire mise-en-scène of that scene is geared toward illuminating that contradiction.
NOTEBOOK: And the score, by the late Christophe, is so ethereal. What sort of instructions, if any, did you give him?
DUMONT: What I asked him to do not only in the accident scene, but throughout the entire film, was to create hyper-romantic music that would shed light on France, who is a tragic character. I wanted to explore the chiaroscuro, the darkness, the evil inherent in this character, knowing that Christoph’s music would counterbalance these qualities with something luminous that announces the redemption that comes at the end of the film. The music is an important aspect of the accident scene because it reminds us that the whole thing is theater, melodrama, cinema. It’s fake, and yet there’s something real through the artifice.
NOTEBOOK: I’ve noticed that several of your films feature Muslim or North African characters—there are the brothers Yassine and Nassir in Hadewijch, and Mohammed in P’tit Quinquin, which in general shows a lot of racial tension and racist behavior. In France, you draw on this tension yet again by contrasting France—this glamorous white star—with Baptiste and his humble family. What interests you about this relationship?
DUMONT: It’s true that from the very beginning my films have always included Muslim characters or characters from the Maghreb. In France, the character of Baptiste is completely assimilated, which is apparent in his name. Yet the question of immigration is one that haunts France, the country, one that’s politically troublesome. Even in my Jeanne films I try to reckon with the question of France—what it means to be French and what French nationhood means—in a cinematic way, which is to say not in an intellectual or political way. I’m more so thinking in terms of presence, and the presence of these people. The question of what it means to be French is not resolved by the film, it’s presented as a non-resolution. I am not an ideologue.
NOTEBOOK: To put it glibly, your films are so unmistakably yours. Yet you constantly reinvent your cinema in unexpected ways. How would you describe that reinvention here, with France?
DUMONT: This is a film where I take on modernity in an urban setting and the culture of the contemporary bourgeoisie more than ever before. Most of my films take place in the countryside, because what I’m interested in is human nature. With this film, I’m looking at something much more cerebral—the media, the elite. I’m disturbed by the way the intellectual elite disguises itself in virtue and morality yet is responsible for the absolute worst things in our society—that is, the alienation of the public, which the mass media is in part responsible for. Indeed, I do try to renew myself with every film, and yet I find that I always make the same film. That’s why I try to intentionally make a different film each time, because I know it’ll be the same.