The Tracks of Her Tears
By James Wham

NYFF 2021:
France
Dir. Bruno Dumont, France, Kino Lorber

France is a film of tears and terre, misery and mud; the study of a woman who can’t stop weeping and a colony on the verge of collapse. Always, its subject is “France.” This doubleness is foregrounded at the outset, the two Frances placed in opposition: star journalist France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) confronts head of state Emmanuel Macron (CGI trickery) during a press conference with a question Epicurus once leveled at God: “Are you heedless or powerless?” Macron smiles, a little stung, as the other journalists ooh and ahh, and then gathers himself to answer. As he speaks, France and her assistant Lou (Blanche Gardin) exchange winks, kisses, and cock-thrusts. Macron’s response—concerning the well-being of the French people—is immaterial. What matters is that France has won the moment, deliberately dulling the President’s luster to better illuminate her own shining star.

In this small sequence lies the thesis of the film: the problem of news as entertainment—or, as is later articulated, voters as viewers. France works for i, which likely implies informations, but more aptly represents how central she is to the network. All France’s stories are foremost about herself, she is always in frame. When a fellow news anchor questions this, France replies: “I aim for a more sensitive approach. It’s more subjective.” Her function, then, is much like an emoji, an emotional shorthand instructing how the audience should feel. When she goes off on interviews, to migrant crises or murder scenes, France religiously heckles her cameraman for more shots of her key instrument: her face.

One senses that Bruno Dumont did not need as much convincing. France is largely composed of Seydoux close-ups, usually direct-to-camera. As the film progresses, more and more of these shots consist of her crying. In setting up France’s journalistic function as a conduit for empathy, Dumont presupposes Seydoux’s purpose: she cries, we feel. But tears are tricky things, and like the central problem of news and entertainment, we are never sure if her sorrow is true or false.

That other anchor also uses the term “staging” to describe France’s process. (Or at least, that’s what the subtitle tells us; what we hear instead is mise-en-scène.) France rejects this term, but it’s a useful one, and one Dumont applies to the film in subtle, surprising ways. First, he offers a lesson in filmmaking through France, who arrives somewhere in Northern Africa to meet a group of Tuareg militants, French allies against “ISIS.” (Again, what we actually hear is Daesh, Macron’s preferred term, and the more derogatory one.) A gentle tyrant, France stages the exposé with exacting detail, showing soldiers how to move—look this way, walk that way—and hold their guns. She envisions the entire scene in her head, piecing it together in disparate, stilted shots that only make sense when we view the finished product in the following scene. Call it movie magic: a welcome deception.

The French word for “entertainment” is divertissement, or “distraction.” Bertolt Brecht—alluded to only once, very briefly—sought to deny the suture of distraction by making clear the mechanics of production. France does the same. Once the duplicity of mise-en-scène has been established, other falsities begin to infest the film: France gets into her car and we realize it has no doors; she drives, shot from behind, and her windshield is too tall for there to be a roof; and when she and Lou ride together in the back of a taxi, the scene passing by in the background suddenly repeats itself, clearly playing on a loop.

The chief characteristic of Dumont’s images is detachment—they have the cold, clear quality of a winter’s morning, where the sun shines without feeling. But he takes this a step further in the way he stages France’s journalistic investigations, which so often play out as poorly disguised set pieces. With the visit to the Tuareg fighters, there is a total lack of threat, but we attribute this to France’s fame. (The leader takes a selfie with her, for instance, as does nearly every stranger who encounters France in the film.) Later, she finds herself in an active war zone, scrambling through ruins with explosions and gunshots abound. France is unfazed, jarringly so, but through Dumont’s too-revealing wide shots we begin to understand why: there is no threat at all, no enemy soldiers, no actual bullets or bombs. This is obvious in the sense that this is a film, and so of course all those things are true, but typically a director would obfuscate this fact through careful cuts and framing. Dumont keeps just enough distance to let you see through the façade. This may be meant as a comment on media fearmongering (migrant caravans, critical race theory, trans bathrooms—all manufactured threats) or simply a plain-stated way of exposing, yet again, how news constructs narratives, but the core problem is a filmic one: mise-en-scène, or the way in which the camera lies.

Perhaps this is why France’s downfall begins with the immediacy of an all-too-real event: she hurriedly drops her son off at school and then, looking the wrong way, crashes into a delivery driver, knocking him off his scooter and dislocating his knee. The damage is fairly minor, at least physically, but it seems the collision has also dislodged something in France’s mind. She unravels; the crying fits begin. Seydoux’s secluded, sleepy eyes become endless wellsprings of sadness. She cries during car rides and television interviews, after minor confrontations and total heartbreak. But why?

William Blake once wrote that “a tear is an intellectual thing,” which is true in the sense that tears are deployed intelligently, to appeal to the empathy of others. When a baby is neglected too long, it stops crying, as does a person in the deepest throes of depression—when there is no hope of help, crying serves no purpose. Emotional tears are a uniquely human quality; no other animals cry because they are sad. They are also, in keeping with France’s arc, a product of The Fall: there were no tears in Eden because crying requires knowledge—another way in which Blake was correct. Crocodiles cry, but only as a means of lubricating their creepy little eyes when out of water, something the Egyptians mistook for luring in prey, feigning weakness, thus the misnomer “crocodile tears.” Is France crocodilian in this way? When she cries, is it merely to better enable her career, to serve as the nation’s designated mourner, a more empathetic Marianne? We don’t doubt her authenticity at first, even if it is, as Lou points out, a little much. But as the crying continues, in private and public, on camera and off, these tears, these intellectual things, seem more insidious.

When France takes her leave from journalism, she makes her announcement through tears. Both cameras—the studio’s and Dumont’s—linger on her face too long. By the time it cuts, she looks waterlogged; France refuses to wipe the tears away. Lou celebrates this achievement: the public swoons for France! After a brief mental health break—more damaging than nourishing—France returns to television and, at first, looks positively giddy, dancing on camera during a “drone attack.” (Dumont places a silent drone sequence shortly after, a reminder that he is “staging” the scene.) The crew eventually arrives alongside some refugees shipping out into the Mediterranean, bound for Europe. France boards with them, apparently the first ever journalist to do so, and she recalls their struggles, which have saturated European news media for some time, to the camera—yet again through tears. Dumont then smash-cuts to a glossy white launch, where France and her technicians relax on their own, well-separated from the migrants. (“You slept on that boat? You didn’t want lice?” Lou jokes.)

When we watch this scene a second time, from the studio, even Lou has her suspicions: “You’re crying for real?” Seydoux, a brilliant cypher despite her overactive lachrymal glands, responds with the faintest gesture. “Of course,” she says, still smiling, and then winces slightly. It’s a minor expression, but just enough to mystify.

This ambivalence only works because Dumont never reveals anything of France’s interiority. She has no real friends or family, just Lou, a workmate, and her husband and son, who are mostly loveless. Her home—which we might search for clues of a projected personality—looks more like a museum or avant-garde art gallery. The walls are off-black, as are the floors, doors, and other fixtures. Beauteous paintings in gold frames fill the rooms alongside stained-glass windows. Even the way she dresses gives little away: she mostly just looks beautiful. (An early cut to the studio, Seydoux in red lipstick and blouse, is genuinely breathtaking.) More than mere human, France is foremost an aesthetic object: her eyes—azure blue, once the warmest color—here fill the palette for Dumont’s frigid imagery, pouring out into couches and costumes, sea and sky. She is, as Lou calls her, an “icon”—an empty one.

Later, France travels to the North, revisiting the pastoral horrors of Dumont’s Humanité. She interviews the wife of a convicted rapist who states that she would only talk to France—the face of the country, its sensitivity and subjectivity. France thanks her, taking her hand, offering the consolation that her story needs to be told, that viewers need to know what she’s gone through. “No one can know what I’ve gone through,” the woman replies.

Perhaps France is Dumont’s way of communicating the unknowability of others, the outer limits of empathy. Throughout his career, it has been difficult to assign a “mode” to the great filmmaker, whose work is ever so slightly off-kilter—not quite realism, but something close to it. I had said earlier that his chief quality was detachment, but a better word might be strangeness. Dumont keeps you at a distance, like Brecht, though his purpose isn’t strictly political or didactic. There is, ironically, great feeling in this space—the space between strangeness and estrangement. His films can provoke intense emotions, but also thinking, since tears are intellectual things. France may be a critique of news media and its dishonest attestation to reality, their monopoly over “the way things really are,” but its more immediate impact is expressive, affective. At the film’s close, a young man enters the scene and, for no particular reason, destroys a motorbike. It recalls the beginning of all France’s problems, offering a displaced catharsis, one more violent and masculine than we imagine France is capable of. Instead, she cries: for us, for France, for Dumont, for the end of the world. It seems that’s all she can do.