Léa Seydoux simultaneously adopts Commandant Van der Weyden’s facial tics from director Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin and Coincoin series in one moment and erects journalistic composure the next when questioning President Emmanuel Macron on live TV. She’s just that good in Bruno Dumont’s new film France.
After turns at the Cannes and NYFF selection, and opening this week, France stars Seydoux as France de Meurs, a seemingly unflappable superstar TV journalist whose career, homelife, and psychological stability are turned upside-down after she carelessly drives into a young delivery man on a busy street. As France attempts to retreat into a simpler life after the accident, her fame continues to pursue her. Dumont’s film examines the difficulty of maintaining one’s sense of self in a corrosive culture.
The Film Stage spoke with Bruno Dumont about collaborating with Léa Seydoux to create her character France de Meurs. We had a lengthy discussion about the extent to which the news and movies can depict reality, and if the latter needs to. Dumont also talks about how cinema removes us from reality to show deeper truths.
The Film Stage: Are there theorists you turn to understand and interpret our world of 24-hour news?
Bruno Dumont: In terms of references, I don’t need any because the theorists of cinema are sufficient to understand what the media is doing today.
Are there particular cinema theorists you read to understand what the media is doing today?
I think all philosophy since the beginning of time helps us to think about this mystery of human nature. What is at issue in the media is the same questions. Technology changes nothing about that. I think that my studies in philosophy and my small experience in cinema is enough for me to make this film. It’s enough to find these correspondences that allow us to understand the things where we find them.
But how did television news become the new Plato’s Cave, so to speak? It purports to show the truth, or the real.
I think that what digital images do is simply to transform the ubiquity of the real and the present. They bring the distant real to a very close real through screens. We can have knowledge of the real through screens but this real is represented. It’s still Plato’s Cave. It’s still shadows. TV news filming the real is still showing shadows. That’s what the film shows: that we’re still in a representation. That the real is still or always falsified.
What happens to reality when everything we watch is a representation of a representation of a representation, etc?
I don’t think that this is a big problem. Just as cinema can enchant us and charm us, so can the digital resources of screens. They can do that too. It’s not because things are over-represented that the question of truth goes away. What we need is real reflection and consideration of what journalism is, of what it is to represent the real. That’s where cinema comes in. Cinema, as we know, is a noble form. Cinema showed us that fiction does not prevent the truth. Truth is representation. What we need is for journalism to become an art. We will be saved when journalists are artists.
Who are some filmmakers today making real art within cinema?
The great filmmakers. We know them, but they’re always the same. Most of them are dead.
How did Léa Seydoux bring the character of celebrity journalist France de Meurs to life?
For her character France de Meurs, as always in my case, I build my characters based on the character of the person who is playing them. With Léa Seydoux, you have a person who is both a movie star and who is very sensitive and simple. There’s a kind of contradiction there and I used the full amplitude of her being to build her performance. The character goes from a kind of extremely sophisticated, artificial, even vulgar person to a kind of total detachment and simplicity that’s close to the grotesque and to beauty. There’s really something quite incredible, in my view, of having someone who can be both so rich and so vulgar. She’s really quite a rich actress.
Léa Seydoux is both a cerebral and instinctive actress. She’s both at once. Léa is an actress who is very precise: she listens a lot, and she’s quite precise in what she delivers. What I like about her work is that she delivers precisely what is asked. I think that she likes being directed; I think she likes that relationship of cinema and mise-en-scène. I work with earpieces on set, and during takes she has an earpiece in and she really listens to the indications that I give her during the scene. Right away she delivers what she’s asked.
Tell me about the cinematography of France and how you accomplished the look of TV news.
Since I work with digital today I’m interested in disassociating the two images: the cinematic image and the digital image. The digital image is hyperrealist. That’s something that really interests me. There’s a lot of these scenes of hyperrealism in France. The hyperrealism of fiction is something that I find fascinating. You have these allegedly, totally real images that are actually totally fake. Something that we saw with 35mm, celluloid film in cinema, which was cinema’s varnish and special look. We realized the distance that that created is actually the real. The real, in fact, never shows itself. There’s a contradiction in its appearance that’s like a poem. I film what is murky and unclear. I’m not a prophet; I film what I see and I’m surprised by what I see. I don’t know anymore than you do.
Many filmmakers now make television shows. Do you see yourself going back to television as well?
I have no problem making television shows. A screen is a screen. I’m totally indifferent to that. I don’t idealize the movie screen. I’ve seen enough bad films to not believe that the theater is a criterion. The criterion is not the screen—it’s the film. For instance, Jean Renoir made plenty of bad films. Unlike a lot of people in France, I’m not an auteur theorist; I don’t believe la politique des auteurs. All great filmmakers made bad films. What matters is the film, not the filmmaker. Whether it’s for TV or not is unimportant. What’s important is whether the film is good or not.
France is now in limited release.