By Lawrence Garcia
Published in Cinema Scope #88 (Fall 2021)
“Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
In the seven years since P’tit Quinquin, it has become impossible to continue tagging Bruno Dumont with the longstanding clichés of Bresson criticism. Epithets like “ascetic,” “severe,” “punishing”—already limited descriptors of his first two works, La vie de Jésus (1997) and L’humanité (1999)—have only become more obviously incapable of describing Dumont’s recent films, from the carnivalesque contortions of Ma Loute (2016) to the musical extremes of his Jeanne d’Arc movies. Still, as Dumont’s methods (particularly his increasingly frequent use of professionals alongside non-actors) have ostensibly moved away from those of Bresson, the deeper affinities between the two filmmakers have only become clearer. More effectively than did Camille Claudel 1915 (2013), Ma Loute demonstrated that the affective qualities of Bresson’s “involuntarily expressive models” and the high camp of a Juliette Binoche or Fabrice Luchini are not irreconcilable extremes so much as alternate angles of approach to the same fundamental questions. Now, with France—a film quite literally anchored by Léa Seydoux, playing celebrity TV journalist France de Meurs—Dumont has chosen an ideal milieu in which to explore this principle.
Despite appearances, though, France is not a satire of the contemporary media landscape—or, insofar as it functions as one, it is not terribly interesting. An early scene that sees France digitally inserted into a Macron press conference, trading mimed sex acts with her assistant before asking the president about the “insurrectional state of French society,” is lightly amusing, but hardly indicative of the film to follow. Likewise, when France inadvertently injures a motorcyclist (Jewad Zemmar) with her car, the accident does not become the film’s central incident as we might expect, but simply takes its place as just one crisis among many.
Even as he engages with the visual vernacular of the media, Dumont continues to zero in on what has always interested him most: those aspects of an event that go beyond its situational or historical causes, what Deleuze called the “mystery of the present” in the work of Charles Péguy (whom Dumont has now twice adapted), or what Péguy himself termed the “internal.” In Jeanne (2019), Dumont’s casting of 12-year-old Lise Leplat Prudhomme as the teenaged Maid of Orleans served to accentuate those internal, ineradicable qualities of Jeanne d’Arc that persisted beyond the historical facts of her life, trial, and death: not only her innocence, but also her fundamental incompatibility with the worldly constructions of Church and State. While there is no such clearly signalled rift between performer and role in France, the film offers an analogous dynamic: even as it expands outward to delineate its protagonist’s social and professional world, it also converges, in most every scene, onto a veritable portrait study of Seydoux-as-France. Thus, when France is seduced and betrayed by a journalist (Emanuele Arioli), Dumont demonstrates minimal interest in either the seduction or the betrayal; rather, he focuses on the imprint these leave on France, the camera pushing in and holding on her visage as if searching for proof of things unseen.
As in Jeanne then—and despite that film’s vastly different social and historical situation—Dumont is interested in his heroine’s predicament not as trial, but as passion. Given that France’s profession and milieu would seem to make her more protean and adaptable (not to mention cynical and opportunistic) than Prudhomme’s Jeanne, there is a natural inclination to regard her as less authentic than her predecessor. So when, in the fallout from the motorcycle accident, France undergoes a minor breakdown and takes leave of her job to convalesce at a snowy mountain resort, her decision may be judged as less an authentic reaction to trauma than a canny PR move—a suspicion that her later return to journalism might seem to bear out.
What is at stake in such a judgment, though, is the very question of being that underlies so much of both Dumont’s and Bresson’s practice. The filmmakers’ mutual interest in their performers’ interiority stems not from their preoccupation with how things are, but rather, as per Wittgenstein, that they are. Bresson’s approach tends to be characterized by metaphors of subtraction, “emptying out” or “stripping away” the reactions of his (mostly) non-professional actors, the better to reveal their inner essence; consequently, when his “models” confront extremes of event or environment in the filmic narrative, what we witness in their reactions is not so much emotion as bodily affect—not “sadness,” but tears.
Despite the wildly different methods that Dumont employs in France, he nevertheless places his viewers in a curiously comparable position. Confronted with Seydoux’s tear-stained visage across a variety of contexts—a TV interview, a couple of war-zone excursions, a Mediterranean refugee crossing—we reach a similar performative limit as we do with Bresson’s non-actors, only from a different direction. Faced with an outward “fullness” of thespian display, one may still doubt France’s sadness, asking whether this time one might take her tears to be authentic. What one comes to realize, though, is that in Dumont as in Bresson, presence is primary. This is not to say that narrative context and acting conventions do not matter, only that our awareness of these should never diminish our engagement with the “internal,” affective dimension of any given moment.
Dumont demonstrates this decisively during the film’s finest sequence, which is also arguably its crudest narrative turn. Following a disastrous public gaffe by France, drone footage shows her husband (French singer Benjamin Biolay) and young son (Marco Bettini) driving through a mountain pass to some unknown destination. This then segues into one of the most sublimely ridiculous car crashes in cinema: a perfectly timed progression of slow-motion carnage (some of it filmed with GoPros), with diegetic sound entirely replaced by the score by the late Christophe (Dumont’s collaborator on Jeanne). On paper, this might seem like no more than crassness. But as with Jeanne’s physical comedy of a too-young girl confronting the bumbling, buffoonish men who embody the powers of Church and State, Dumont understands that the effect of this tragedy on his heroine is not at all diminished by the irreverent, ostensibly incongruous tone of her trial. So when, Christophe’s score still playing, the film cuts to Seydoux’s tear-stained face in a Parisian cemetery, we find that amid this movie’s blatant contrivance of plot and presentation, France’s passion remains.
There is in this moment a conviction that runs throughout all of Dumont: that no secondary context (narrative, historical, or otherwise), however violent or extreme, can ultimately determine one’s presentness to a person or event. Again like Bresson, Dumont is often charged with putting his characters through arbitrary stations of the cross, thereby affirming the so-called metaphysical absurd. But what one often ends up feeling at the conclusion of his films is that it is our own sense of narrative expectation and desire for coherence that is absurd. Seen in this way, the undeniably shocking endings of Twentynine Palms (2003) or Hadewijch (2009), like the car crash here, are not meant to just provoke us or convey some vague sense of ultimate meaninglessness. Rather, they are meant to push us past the arbitrary strangeness of cause and effect in order to see the irreducible strangeness of presence—again, not the mystery of how things are, but that they are. “Only the present remains. Here and now,” France says towards the end of the film, in a reunion as surprising, as inevitable, as the one at the close of Pickpocket (1959); “Forget all expectations.” And as Dumont pushes into a close-up of Seydoux one final time, we are reminded that presentness is grace.