France writer-director Bruno Dumont writes straightforward — albeit literary — screenplays, and then he pushes the satirical elements once on set with his actors, and then fine tunes it later in the edit.
Although set in Paris, the titular France here is a person: France de Meurs, a powerhouse TV personality, played by Léa Seydoux (No Time to Die, Blue is the Warmest Colour). Provocative French comedian Blanche Gardin is Lou, France’s producer and unofficial sidekick/handler.
“I’ve modeled my characters on the personalities of the people who were playing them, whether these people were professional actors or non-professionals,” Dumont tells MovieMaker.
For Seydoux, this meant that France de Meurs would cry a lot.
“In the script, Léa Seydoux’s character doesn’t cry. It’s when I saw on set how she cries very easily, that I used that.”
Dumont describes the script as something “rather systematic, neutral. It’s a score. It tells a story.” And that’s why he puts so much emphasis on working with the actors physically on set.
“Screenplays are very pragmatic, systematic documents that are used for producers, technicians,” Dumont continues. “In a screenplay, you have absolutely no psychology. There’s no indication of that.”
But Dumont’s films require something deeper, so he eschews traditional screenwriting in one key way.
“For me, the only way into a character is to write in a literary way. And so there are a lot of things in the writing that are useless because I make films. I don’t write literature, but I think that they prepare me for what I do on set. They prepare me to deform the characters.”
Calibrating or “deforming” an actor’s performance is another relatively straightforward process for Dumont.
“When I’m on the set, and I’m doing takes — and I don’t do many takes — I’m just doing more or less. I’m adding or taking away,” he says.
This affords Dumont a range of takes to consider in the edit, from the neutral to the more extreme and over-the-top. With this flexibility he can fine-tune the pacing and tone — something critical when working in satire.
“The comedy was transformed in the edit because the satire was not in the script,” Dumont says.
“France could have been a normal film,” he continues. “If I had filmed in the center, it would have been normal, but instead I went into a kind of tragedy, into the grotesque. I go off the rails, but to go off the rails, you need rails.”
While working with the composer Christophe, Dumont told him to “constantly bring romantic and sentimental feelings into the music.”
When Seydoux’s France is romanced by a reporter midway through the film, Dumont says their romance “is always on the edge of being ridiculous.”
“It’s totally kitsch, because he’s always turning up at the window. He’s always there. But that comic element is contradicted by real love and romanticism,” he continues. Christophe’s score helps maintain that juxtaposition between the ridiculous and the saccharine.
Likewise, a deadly car crash scene in the film could play as purely tragic if Dumont had “filmed in the center” — but instead “it’s ridiculous. It’s slow motion. It’s so melodramatic.” he says.
“We’re in the world of the gossip press. It’s that excessive world in which tragedy is side by side with the grotesque,” he adds.
The push and pull of France’s public persona with her private life is a major theme in France, and the tabloids’ role in exploiting these contradictions is a strong entry point for Dumont to explore these themes.
France, written and directed by Bruno Dumont, is now in theaters.
Main image: Léa Seydoux as France de Meurs on the set of her TV news program in France, from writer-director Bruno Dumont. Photos courtesy of Kino Lorber