Sympathy for The Devil: Bruno Dumont, despre „France” | Viennale 2021

9 November, 2021

Bruno Dumont is one of those contemporary filmmakers that need no introduction: the auteur behind a singular body of work, a cinematic maverick known for his unwavering method of gazing at the most absurd, most wretched elements of human existence in order to mine moments of purity – be it pure grace, or pure comedy. France, his latest feature film, starring Léa Seydoux (in what is arguably the role of her career) as an eponymous star television presenter whose life spirals out of control, competed for a Palme d’Or at this year’s historic edition of the Cannes Film Festival. The film is, in many ways, both a summation of its director’s major leitmotifs, and a reinvention onto a new terrain – a feat which very few filmmakers achieve as well (and as often!) as Dumont.

We caught up with Bruno Dumont at this year’s edition of the Viennale, and talked about his particular choices in terms of cinematography in France, the echoes of Roberto Rossellini and his previous works, and his ways of approaching the timeless concept of human evil.

Léa Seydoux as France de Meurs (2021).
Léa Seydoux as France de Meurs (2021).

You said a very beautiful thing a couple of years ago, at the Locarno Film Festival’s academy in 2018, where you had a masterclass. You said that you compose your sequences like you would compose music, using combinations of shots like you would use chords. And one of the musical notes in this particular film is Léa Seydoux, particularly her face. I wanted to ask you about this element, in the first place – about how it is to construct a film that is very ample, shot in many different places, but which at the same time uses the image of a particular face as a core element.

Of course. First, I had to adapt to her style. This is why I began writing the film starting with her. Because I had to get to know her color, her shape, in order to know what I could do. And after that, while making the film, I made it all sing, ascend and descend in accordance to all of the variations of human emotions, as a matter of fact.

And the face is the main place where all emotions are blooming. When you regard a face, you can see what happens on the interior. And what interests me is what happens inside of her, but as I am unable to reach that place, I must advance and find ways of entering that space. So, I approached her face. And what I see, by using long shots, which serve as a way for me to enter what I have witnessed, is a story that pours out, and so I can introspect and probe into this woman who, for the moment, seems very very tough, and thus these are moments of calm. Moments that are, at the same time, romantical, even if the scenes could be brutal at times. There are even moments when I film her and she is ugly, even though this woman is so beautiful! But see, there is ugliness that can exist in beauty. And that is what compels me to film all the amplitudes of being, just like in music.

On the topic of the gamut of human emotion, I found a very particular resemblance of France to your earlier film, Camille Claudel 1915 (2013), in a way. Not only because of the fact that France goes to a sanitarium to recover herself, at one point. I think it has much more to do with the fact of approaching human pain in such a direct manner.

Well, you are right, it’s true. I think that, at the same time, there are also some relations to Jeanne (2019). They are the same model of exceptional women, that is, Camille Claudel, Joan of Arc and, finally, France, a wholly fictional character, but who has the same power and, at the same time, pain. A receptacle of pain, just like Camille Claudel. The latter was one of the most brilliant artists that ever lived, due to her sensitivity and especially in the expression of this sensitivity.

So I need a character who is very sharp in order to feel the pain of the world in which we are living. At the same time we have grace, too, and that is why this is such a flamboyant, heroic character. Like an Amazon, she is also brutal, like a warrior. But, at the same time, she is suffering. She is who she is, but she also suffers because of who she is, so she’s overwhelmed and she is suffering because of it. It’s a bit complicated, but this is how it is. She is a television star, but she is also a horrible person, and she is aware of this fact. That is why cinema is like a path. Her moment of running into life, of finding salvation is not the one where she goes to the mountains and looks at the sheep, but rather, it is the moment when she returns and starts everything over again. And I believe in this a lot, in this sort of salvation and in discovering it in these ways.

I find it very interesting that you talk about this return, because throughout the entire film, even before the child of France is killed, I was thinking a lot about Roberto Rosselini’s Europa 51 (1952). And, in a way, I felt that you were entering a dialogue with this film, especially with the figure of Irene, the character played by Ingrid Bergman.

Absolutely. But in this case, the death of the child is the worst thing one can imagine. It is completely theatrical, like in a Greek tragedy, a space of voluntary exaggeration which we can sometimes see in the case of tabloid press people. It goes from very-very happy to extremely unhappy… happiness, unhappiness, illness, death… a very interesting world. Like in cinema, completely.

But I believe that there is a difference in contrast between France and Irene. And that is that France never reaches the level of sainthood, and she cannot arrive to it either, like Irene did.

That’s because I’m a non-believer. There is a kind of human saintliness, to which France also belongs, but this human saintliness is something very small, happening at a low level. I am interested in what is religious, but only when it comes to adapting it to humanity. I do believe that there is a certain kind of human grace, and France has it, but she does not have a very high level of it. It is still grace, in the end, a small grace – and that is the human grace. In the case of Ingrid Bergman, or rather, that of Rossellini, it is only the case of a malevolent god. But I do not believe in all of that.

Still from France (2021), by Bruno Dumont.
Still from France (2021), by Bruno Dumont.

Another parallel is the woman who asks France, at a gala event, whether she is left-wing or right-wing, to which she does not reply. I found it interesting regarding the topic of mass-media, but also to Irene, because at one point, there is a left-wing activist that tries to attract her to his political movement, which she refuses.

I wanted her not to reply because she is not just outside of the political scene, she is also outside of the sociological one. It is total theater, because she truly has no answer to give. She doesn’t even know the answer, herself.

When it comes to the media landscape in particular, which has visibly deteriorated to such a high degree in the past few years, I think it’s fascinating that you look for someone’s humanity in a medium that seems to be truly inhumane.

We encounter the fact that she is monstrous, too, in fact. De facto, France is a monster. But she is human. Within her, we find both what is most monstrous about the media  – in arrogance, falsification and falseness – but she manages to keep her humanity, she manages to wake up into it. And this is why this is a view of her spirit, in fact. Because some evil people are simply evil, but she is capable of waking up to discover that about herself, the fact that she is actually evil. While she is precisely capable of interrogating her own character and to search for the small light that has the power to save her.

But I feel that she also loses sight of this small light, quite often. That is what makes her even more human to me – the fact that she catches it, then loses it, then catches it again…

She is a character that solely serves the spectators, in fact, and sort of traps them. She is like a balm that helps the spectators articulate their own turpitude, in fact. For me, cinema is not… let’s say, this character does not exist. Given that she does not have a sociological existence, this character can serve as a vehicle to which the spectators can cling onto, which can help them traverse the film. But it is not her that traverses it. She is a fiction, she does not have an existence. So we should not talk about her in the way in which we talk about someone who truly exists. She is like a sort of gymnastics apparatus, which serves us to cling onto it, to climb, to descend, because I think that, in fact, she represents each of us. She represents our hyper-narcissism, our hyper-turpitude and, at the same time, our capacity to set these things in remission, to exit them. What she says at the end, it’s practically just like a quote from Charles Péguy: that happiness is not something that happens tomorrow, but rather, right now. One must search for grace in the moment. She no longer believes in political utopias, even less so in religion. This character is very modern, I think.

Fame is another one of the grand topics that the film approaches – but for me, in a way, it’s almost like a false lead. It’s almost like a track that you use to probe one of the most important concepts, leitmotifs of your cinema, and that is the essence of evil. There is a whole gamut – and not only in this film, but in the entirety of your work – of it, ranging from the small, banal acts of evil to its greatest examples.

Of course. It goes up and down, like in The Life of Jesus (1997). There is no good and evil, that does not exist – we are all tainted, so we climb and then descend this axis. It is the same thing with her. Sometimes, there is something wicked and evil in her, but at the same time, she has the capacity to regenerate, while still remaining the same woman. This is what interests me. There is no such thing as good people and bad people, I think we are all on board this small elevator that takes us up and down. And France is truly like that. But what she represents is something that we can find within us. We can be wretched bastards, or we can be saints.

Like the character who breaks the bicycle, in a way. You witness a horrible moment in someone’s life, but that doesn’t really say anything about them in a deeper sense – I mean, it does, but it also doesn’t.

Yes, it’s banal violence. A small violence which echoes the car accident, except less serious. We are on a scale of violence. There is violence – great, great violence, even death, but also the small violence of the street. And I think that France can see how the two correspond, and that is why this is the way she is. She can see the progression of evil, in its most common aspects – in a guy who destroys a bike, or, in the most extraordinary sense, the death of her son.

Since you mentioned The Life of Jesus – I wanted to ask about the choice to shoot in a medium that is quite different from your previous films, at least from a social perspective. Leaving your period pieces aside, you usually choose to set your narrative outside the “center”, outside the cities. This is, by contrast, a very urban medium. Does that change part of your approach?

Absolutely, one that is intellectual, sophisticated. But, at the same time, this is the same movement. I think that when I am filming people from the countryside, I am very close to nature, but, in fact, I am closer to human nature. Here, in the urban setting, there is much more turpitude, I think. Because here you can find more culture, more intelligence, more lies, more hypocrisy. There might seem like there is an extra layer of fat to it, but beyond that, it’s absolutely the same, there is no big difference between them.

Speaking of cars – I was fascinated by how you chose to shoot cars in this film. Usually, cars are depicted as very cramped spaces, and while you do have some of these types of shots in France, you have these scenes shot on wide lenses where the actors sit in front of a greenscreen. So, instead of the car appearing as a claustrophobic space, it appears to be a very open one, and I was curious about this choice in particular.

I really like to transpose things – filming within cars is of no particular interest, let’s say, but I am interested a lot in the means, in the theatricality of the space. So, if I choose to widen it, it is not to have more space to place the camera, but it is precisely because everything is so exaggerated in this film, the windshields are much bigger and so on. I go beyond the real – she is in her car, but, in fact, she isn’t. It’s rather too big. It’s a space of disproportion, which is the exact space that I am interested in. It’s leaving proportion behind in order to return to the disproportionate. And that is, in fact, the most telling way of approaching proportionality, in the end. I am going about things a little bit sideways in order to film a woman in her car, but, in the end, it’s still a woman in her car. And a woman in a car is very interesting to me. (laughs)

It’s a sort of distancing mechanism, in a way. Considering the film is also very concerned about how France constructs these layers upon layers of fiction in her work, which should in fact strive to be objective – coming back to the question regarding her face, the only true, tangible thing in the film is Lea’s face and her way of acting, in a way, more tangible than the fictions within she is moving.

The only true thing is emotion. Because her emotions are true. But the rest is false. And since everything else is false, this becomes a consonant for emotion. If the film is too sociological, it would speak a lot about the exterior – but I am not interested in the exterior. I modify, falsify it in order to focus on her emotions, which are completely true. That is to say, she is sincerely living through what she is experiencing, but the film itself is exaggerated. It’s an excess, a theatricality, something that we might call a representation, but which only serves as a scene onto which we play the small theater of our hearts, of the human soul. And, as such, the film must be very fair towards human sensitivity. Or that is what I try to construct, in any case. When I use camera movements, I am looking for what can happen on the inside and I am looking to be true to them.

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.


Director/ Screenwriter