- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (3/12/2021)
Updated: Dec 4, 2021
(Reviews of Encounter; Lapwing; Dying to Divorce; and two titles from the 29th French Film Festival - Promises and France)
So, here we are again! Normality is in jeopardy once more and cinema-going returns to being a risk for even the double-jabbed who've been boostered - let alone bleeped (look it up, you non-oldies).
Big screens remain in action. But, one suspects, the streaming platforms are about to come into their own again, as they continue to show new releases. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, wear a mask and stay safe.
Something didn't quite ring true about Michael Pearce's debut feature, Beast (2017), and the same goes for his follow-up, Encounter. Set on Jersey, the former centred on the forbidden relationship between a disaffected tour guide and a poacher who is suspected of being a serial killer. Here, a former Marine seeks to protect his young sons from an invasion by extraterrestrial micro-organisms that exists solely in his PTSD-twisted imagination. Each film turns on notions of authority and trust and makes evocative use of the local terrain. Yet, for all their narrative and stylistic assurance, neither can resist contrivances that are rooted in good old-fashioned melodrama.
In a mischievous opening segment, alien parasites arrive on Earth aboard a crashing meteor and proceed to infest the unsuspecting humans who become their hosts. Dozens of bugs scurry around the motel room where Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) is staying. But there's something specious about his glassy-eyed conviction that he needs to take sons Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) to a secure base in the wilderness. They seem surprised when he turns up in the middle of the night and ushers them into a car without waking their mother, Piya (Janina Gavankar), and her new farmer partner, Dylan (Misha Collins). But it's been two years since they last saw him and the boys are prepared to do anything he says.
Malik confides the rules of the road trip, which include the liberal use of insect repellent to keep everyone safe. However, he loses his temper with Jay for not keeping an eye on Bobby while he was in the supermarket and there is still tension in the air when they are pulled over at three in the morning by a police patrol. Convinced he can see the controlling insect through the gun-toting cop's eyes, Malik overpowers him and leaves him badly beaten by the side of the road.
Jay is shocked by his father's actions and is even more dismayed when Malik erupts at Bobby for dropping his soldier toy out of the window and nearly crashes the car in the rugged scrubland. Regaining his composure and realising he needs to take the boys into his confidence, Malik teaches them to shoot his pistol and shows them how to advance through enemy country. But he knows he is in danger of frazzling and needs support.
Having learned that his ex-wife is pregnant, Malik slips away to phone the base. In fact, he calls his parole officer, Hattie (Octavia Spencer), and informs her that his sons are fine and that Piya and Dylan are locked in the barn. Their release brings FBI agent Shepard West (Rory Cochrane) on to the case and Hattie has to assure him that she is a good enough judge of character to know that Malik would never dream of harming his kids.
Despite gaining further insight into his personality from an old army buddy, Hattie has no idea where Malik is, however, and it's only when he fails to see the meteor shower his father is marvelling at that he realises something is badly wrong and he calls the last number Malik has dialled. Jay is surprised to learn Hattie's true identity and feels betrayed. But he rises to the challenge when Malik catches a bullet while trying to steal a replacement car and asks him to drive to a ghost settlement in the desert. He even ventures into the nearby town alone to buy some medication.
A bloodstained banknote alerts the pharmacist, however, and Hattie manages to persuade West to let her accompany him so she can reason with Malik if the need arises. He has a more pressing issue to deal with, as the sons of the old man whose car he stole are out to dispense some frontier justice. But, even though he confounds them, Malik has reached the end of his tether and it comes as something of a relief when the house is surrounded by armed troops and Jay ensures he is peaceably arrested by brandishing his father's gun.
If Anna Kerrigan's Cowboys (2020) took the disturbed, but loving dad storyline into Western territory, this psychological thriller teases a sci-fi approach before appropriating the stock-in-tropes of the chase movie. Once the audience realises that the alien bug infestation is merely a figment of Malik's fevered imagination, the action becomes pretty mundane because, despite Ward's dire warnings about what someone with Malik's profile is capable of doing, it's patently evident that he intends no harm to his boys and that the plot has run into a dead end when it stalls in the deserted mining enclave.
This symbol of abandoned hope serves as a sobering metaphor for the state of post-industrial America, as do the Trumpist instances of casual racism against Malik and Hattie, the trigger-happy resorts to frontier justice and the lack of connectivity between people, even in the so-called golden age of instant communication. Yet Pearce and co-scenarist Joe Barton content themselves with alluding rather than dissecting, as they string out Malik's flight and struggle to interest us in the concerns of the sketchily drawn Hattie.
Not that Malik is particularly well developed, as we only get to learn snippets about his past from his army chum. Nothing is said about the reasons for his break-up with Piya or whether he has any other family. Much is made initially of his insect fixation, but this is dropped as readily as Jay's love of drawing, while the patrolman's determination to get his man is confined to a clumsily staged nightmare sequence. Granted, road movies (apocalyptic or otherwise) tend to press onwards rather than look back. But Pearce and editor Maya Maffioli disrupt any sense of momentum by cutting away so frequently to Hattie and her efforts to understand and protect a vulnerable charge.
She is played with typical empathy by Octavia Spencer, while the debuting Lucian-River Chauhan impresses as the rite-of-passaging son discovering that his idolised father's clay feet. Aditya Geddada also does well, notably in the scene in which he tries to defend his brother in the backseat of the car. But the picture is dominated by Riz Ahmed, who must be the most intense actor currently working in English-
Ahmed's focus is ably caught by cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, who also excels at capturing the passing Nevada landscape and the play of light and shade upon the rocks and desert. Jed Kurzel's score also does much to reinforce the uncertainty that pervades the action. It's just a shame that Pearce loses his sense of direction before running out of steam and dousing the denouement in sentiment.
It's rare for films set in Tudor times to stray from the intrigues and infidelities at court. But director Philip Stevens and screenwriter Laura Turner venture into the region between the North Sea and the Lincolnshire Wolds for Lapwing, a study of historical persecution that has much to say about our current migrant crisis. Similar in feel to Thomas Clay's Stuart-era saga, The Delivered (2019), this is a bold bid to do something different in exposing the deep-seated flaws in our national character.
An opening caption informs us that Queen Mary passed the Egyptian Act in 1554 and gave Gypsies and Travellers a month to quit the country or face the death penalty. Some time during the following year, Arif (Javed Khan), Rumi (Edward De Souza) and Deepa (Sophie Kamal) make it to the coast where salt farmer David (Emmett J. Scanlon) has arranged a boat to take them to the continent. He lives in a tented community with his wife, Lizzie (Sarah Whitehouse), and her aphonic sister, Patience (Hannah Douglas), and lords it over the other couples, Jacob (Lewis Gemmill) and Mathilde (Sarah Xanthe) and Ben (David Clayton) and Kat (Karen Crow).
While teasing Jacob about his inability to control Mathilde, David suggests he takes Patience as his wife and she flees the camp. In the dunes, she is overheard singing softly by Rumi, who shows her his tinderbox and tries to reassure Patience that he means her no harm. However, David punishes her for running away and refuses her supper and intimidates her into handing over the crust that Jacob had smuggled into her tent. The next day, David proves even more intrusive, when he shows Patience how to skin a rabbit and smears blood on her cheek.
His fury erupts when he catches Patience kissing Rumi after they had strolled hand in hand against the sunset. David also finds the carved phoenix pendant that Rumi had given Patience and he drags her back to the camp, where he threatens to burn the witch out of her if he ever finds her with the Egyptian again. Sarah and Jacob try to protest, but they know better than to cross David.
Before setting off to sell salt in the town, David reminds Patience that he expects her to be a good girl. No sooner has he gone, however, than she rushes to see Rumi, who had been badly beaten for consorting with her. Arif tries to drive her away, but Deepa welcomes Patience and she shares a meal by their campfire.
Returning home after making love with Rumi in the grass, Patience is forced to accompany David and Jacob on a trek to the next town, as he had failed to get a price for his salt. Jacob attempts to spook her by insisting that the wind is the wailing of spirits trapped in tree trunks. But the drunken David intervenes when Jacob tries to force his affections upon Patience, only to rape her himself.
The next morning, David forces Patience to undress and leaves her naked under a blanket beside Jacob's corpse. He returns with a new set of clothes and coerces Patience into helping bury Jacob. Back at the camp, he tells Mathilde that her husband has run off with a strumpet and the profits and Patience is unable to contradict him. David informs the others that he intends striking out on his own once Arif has paid for his passage.
Dismayed by Mathilde departing with her young children, Patience tries to tell her sister what has happened. Instead, she takes the phoenix that had survived being thrown on the fire and hurls it into the sea before spitting at Rumi when he tries to console her. That night, Patience intervenes when David and Lizzie start arguing and she realises that he has swindled Jacob and driven his family into an uncertain future. He brandishes a knife, only to fall whimpering to his knees when Patience enters the tent and beckons for the weapon.
On leaving the next morning, Ben and Kat tell Patience they will miss her lapwing screeching. But Lizzie refuses to abandon David, who has gone to drink and gamble in the village. She hugs Patience in trepidation and is sleeping in her lap when David returns.
Wearily dispensing with his waistcoat, he grabs an axe and launches himself at the sisters. Lizzie clings to the coarse wooden crucifix that watches over the encampment as her husband menaces her. But he is felled by a knife to the temple and he drops down dead, leaving Patience and Lizzie to huddle together on the dunes looking out towards the mast hoving into sight on the horizon.
Despite its brooding visual austerity, this rare insight into the travails of the Tudor peasantry is something of a disappointment storywise. Turner's scenario deposits us with the residents of the camp without a word of explanation as to how any of them got there. This is all the more frustrating because David is evidently Irish and his presence on the east coast of England in the mid-1550s would have been relatively unusual and his journey is surely worth mentioning, even in passing.
As it's also clear that he's a highly resistible character, the group dynamic feels more than a little forced. We can just about accept that Lizzie would have a weakness for dangerous charmers, but it feels odd that the other couples would put up with David's drunken tyrannising when salt farming seems to be a far from lucrative occupation and alternative work (and, presumably, better living conditions) appears to be readily available in a neighbouring village.
Even excusing the slenderness of the backstories, Turner makes little effort to establish the historical context. Mary's reign witnessed a bloody attempt to undo the Protestant reforms introduced by her father and brother. Yet there's no sense of the country being in a ferment, as Catholicism is reimposed. We see David leading prayers before the cross, but nothing is said about the theology behind them, despite his Irishness suggesting that he would have remained loyal to Rome.
Despite making much of the Egyptian Act, Turner ignores the fact that it followed similar legislation passed by Henry VIII in 1530 and that it was strewn with codicils that made it far less draconian than the opening captions would imply. But Turner doesn't appear to be one for nuance, hence her ready resort to bodice-ripping tactics and the decision to pepper David's speeches with a four-letter expletive that almost certainly wasn't in such common usage in the mid-16th century as it is now.
Such an anachronism might have been more forgivable had the rest of the dialogue been more memorable. But it isn't and one is almost grateful that Emmett J. Scanlan opts to mumble so many of his lines in the Jamaica Inn manner. He doesn't hold back in his bid to create a hissable villain, but Hannah Douglas is able to give a more deft and effective performance because she doesn't have to spout so many penny dreadful platitudes. That said, if Patience could sing (as David knows she can), why didn't she use song to expose his crimes?
The bid to show that toxic masculinity existed alongside bigotry 465 years ago is entirely laudable. But, while she dwells on Patience's mistreatment, Turner seems less interested in Rumi's plight, as she passes up the opportunity for him to describe his lifestyle to a besotted listener. She merely uses his otherness as a means of allowing Patience to rebel and of goading David into revealing his true colours. Once his job is done, Rumi disappears from the story, even though he's the one who needs passage on the ship to avoid execution.
Making his feature debut after spending a decade producing shorts, Stevens demonstrates a good eye for the landscape, with cinematographer Stewart MacGregor making evocative use of light on the water and wet sand. Susan Pennington's sound design is also noteworthy. This is never the `psychological thriller' the makers claim (as nobody seemingly wants their work to be called `melodrama' these days) and too often feels like it has been expanded from the short it started out by being in 2016. But the premise is intriguing and, with a bit more attention to detail, it could have been a fine film. Maybe next time.
DYING TO DIVORCE.
During the London Film Festival, Ahmet Necdet Cupur's Les Enfants Terribles revealed how subservient Turkish women are expected to be towards the male head of a household. Now, Chloë Fairweather's Dying to Divorce examines the extent to which women are subjected to patriarchal violence in a country where orthodox Muslim conservatism has become the norm under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party.
An opening caption claims that one in three Turkish women have experienced domestic violence, with one woman revisiting the street corner where she was shot in cold blood by her ex-husband. Lawyer Ipek Bozkurt details a number of brutal murders before blaming the situation squarely on the political tone set by the Erdogan regime.
We see an extract from a speech in which the president uses Islamic tradition to dismiss the notion that women are equal to men, while also urging every son to kiss the soles of his mother's feet. But women are fighting for their rights, with Aysen Kavas from the We Will Stop Femicide Platform placing a black wreath outside the Department of Justice to protest at government indifference to the idea that women's lives matter.
Bozkurt travels by bus into the countryside to meet Arzu, whose husband shot her in all four limbs after she asked for a divorce on discovering he intended taking a second wife. Her father bitterly regrets following tradition by marrying her off at 14 and Bozkurt promises Arzu (who is being kept apart from her six children) that she will ensure her husband doesn't receive a reduced sentence.
In a telephone call from Yozgat Prison, Ahmet Boztas insists in an increasingly irate manner that Arzu cheated on him and blames society for encouraging women to get ideas above their station. As a loyal supporter of Erdogan, Boztas expects justice for being driven to an act of rage when he is such a sensitive soul that he wept at the death of his dog. Declaring that men are the ones who suffer, he hopes that he is given a fair trial and that the real culprit is exposed.
Back in Istanbul, Bozkurt goes to meet Kübra, who was a successful presenter on the Blomberg channel before her wedding. She is now severely brain damaged after being hit on the head four times by her husband, Neptün, two days after she had given birth to their daughter.
His family refuses access and stands by his claim that Kübra's condition was caused by a botched Caesarian. Doctor Nevzat Alkan has provided the forensic report on which Bozkurt will rely to ensure that Neptün receives a suitable sentence for battery. But she is nervous that corrupt doctors will dismiss the evidence for political and religious reasons.
Attending court in a wheelchair, Arzu is unhappy that her husband was only sentenced to 20 years, but Bozkurt assures her that the normal term is just nine years and that she should be content, even though he has ruined her life. Relieved to be free of a man who stole half of her life, Arzu vows to get a job, reclaim her children and confront him with his failure to destroy her.
From Bozkurt's point of view, the aborted coup attempt of July 2016 has made the situation worse, as Erdogan has reinforced his populist stance by pandering to the conservative masses in the east and south of Turkey. She speaks to Kübra's brother, Önder, about the possibility that Neptün might get away scot free and he is dismayed that his niece will be raised by a man he despises. But Kübra is determined to have her day in court and use her improving powers of speech to nail her attacker.
In 2017, as an increasing number of lawyers are being murdered, Erdogan stages a constitutional referendum. Bozkurt campaigns against the sweeping powers he claims and has hope when the three biggest cities vote against. But, amidst stories of ballot rigging, news comes that the provinces have fallen in behind the president and he wins control over political and judicial appointments.
That October, two of Bozkurt's female lawyer friends are arrested and charged with belonging to a left-wing terrorist group. She is determined to help them, in spite of her family's fears and Kübra's upcoming court statement that she hopes will convince the judge to take her claim seriously.
Showing the same courage as Arzu when she greeted her children on her new prosthetic legs, Kübra takes speech therapy lessons prior to her court date and her presence prompts the judge to demand an independent report on her injuries. Neptün's family also relent and allow her daughter to stay with her grandparents and Kübra is proud of herself for not giving up.
On International Women's Day in 2019, Bozkurt joins a demonstration in Istanbul. She appears on television to urge Turks to take the femicide scandal seriously. Yet, Kübra's husband is jailed for just 15 months for assault and released early for good behaviour without spending a single day behind bars. Seven years after the attack, however, the court granted Kübra full custody of her daughter. Arzu also sees her children regularly. But many of the 1500 lawyers who have been detained since the 2016 coup remain in prison without trial, while the annual number of femicides continues to rise (over 470 in 2019).
Filmed over five years, this is a powerful indictment of Turkey's toxic attitude towards women's rights. However, with the West so reliant on Ankara in the diplomatic sphere, the chances of pressure being placed upon the current regime are minuscule. Consequently, the misogynists will keep using their faith and nationalist conservatism to justify their brutality.
One can only be humbled by the commitment and courage of Ipek Bozkurt and hope for her future safety. Similarly, we can only extend the warmest wishes to Kübra, Arzu and all women who have survived domestic violence. As for Fairweather, she deserves considerable credit for taking sizeable risks of her own to bring such an important story to cinema screens.
29TH FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL.
The French Film Festival is one of the treats of the autumn and the 29th edition has been stuffed with goodies. In addition to such glorious oldies as Jean Grémillon's Lumière d'été (1942), Jacqueline Audry's Olivia (1951), Costa-Gavras's Z(1969) and Bertrand Tavernier's Let Joy Reign Supreme (1975), the programme includes Sandrine Kiberlain's A Radiant Girl, Constance Meyer's Robust, Julia Ducournau's Titane, Stéphane Brizé's Another World, Arnaud Desplechin's Deception, Catherine Corsini's The Divide, Marc Dugain's Eugénie Grandet, Claire Simon's I Want to Talk About Duras, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Lingui, Jacques Audiard's Paris 13th District, Emmanuelle Bercot's Peaceful, Joachim Lafosse's The Restless, and Nicolas Bedos's OSS 117: From Africa With Love, which sees Jean Dujardin reprise the role of bungling secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath.
In past years, the more than generous organisers would have ensured that many of these titles (as well as those by emerging talents) would have been available for review. On this occasion, however, the distributors seemingly have been frustratingly tight-fisted and it has only been possible to see two of the features on view - although Jean-Louis Milesi's Josep and Céline Sciamma's Petite Maman have previously been reviewed on this blog.
There are echoes of Jeanne Balibar directing herself in Wonders in the Suburbs (2019) in Thomas Kruithof's Promises, another story about a female mayor discovering the grim realities of local governance. Isabelle Huppert stars as Clémence Collombet, who is about leave her deputy, Naidra (Naidra Ayadi), a clear run in the upcoming election after two six-year terms in office in an impoverished satellite town on the outskirts of Paris.
Such has been her commitment to the cause that Clémence hasn't given much thought to the future and she is taken aback when one of the prime minister's team sounds her out about a position in the cabinet. Idealistic chief of staff Yazid (Reda Kateb) isn't convinced that Clémence (who is renowned for her integrity) is cut out for towing the party line and is pleased to see her dogfight spirit return when Michel Kupka (Jean-Paul Bordes), a resident of the Les Bernardins estate where Yazid grew up, writes to senior government official Jérôme Narvaux (Laurent Poitrenaux) about the conditions in his building and puts in jeopardy the €63 million grant that Clémence was hoping to leave as her legacy.
Writing with Jean-Baptiste Delafon, Kruithof neatly contrasts the everyday concerns of private citizens with the wider ambitions of their public servants. Subplots abound, as Clémence annoys her party boss (Christian Benedetti) by announcing her intention to run for a third time after being deemed unsuitable for high office by an unctuous prime ministerial aide (Gauthier Battoue). She and Yazid also have run-ins with the intimidating rent collector fronting for an absentee landlord (Soufiane Guerrab) and a jobsworthy housing administrator (Vincent Garanger). Moreover, Yazid risks having his reputation trashed when a childhood Bernardins buddy (Walid Afkir) threatens to accuse him of beating a black youth (Youssouf Wague) unless he helps his old neighbourhood.
Wedded to her job and detached from her student son, Clémence is a pragmatist who discovers that she doesn't understand politics as thoroughly as she thought she did. Played with compelling inscrutability by Isabelle Huppert, she bites back after being made to feel like a small fish in a big pond, only to regain her sense of self-worth and perspective after Yazid (the impressive Reda Kateb) and Kupka pull an all-nighter to rescue the Bernardins renovation bid by going door to door to ensure rent payments are up to date.
Having debuted with the equally convoluted Scribe (2016), Kruithof retains control of the multiple storylines, despite the odd drift into platitude and sanctimoniousness. He's well served by editor Jean-Baptiste Beaudoin, cinematographer Alex Lamarque and production designer Oliver Radot, who does a neat job in contrasting the worlds of the haves and have-nots. Ultimately, however, there's too much plot to allow the characters to develop and afford Huppert the chance to explore Clémence's complexity.
It's impossible to predict what iconoclastic auteur Bruno Dumont is going to do next. Consequently, each new title comes as an unexpected challenge and France is no exception. Quite unlike anything Dumont has done before, this media satire could almost be described as conventional. But it plays with too many cinematic forms to be as straightforward as it seems and, therein, lies its fascination.
France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) is the star correspondent for Channel i and assistant Lou (Blanche Gardin) encourages her to make a fool of President Emmanuel Macron during a press conference at the Élysée Palace. Sitting on the front row, France exchanges comic hand signals with Lou, as Macron flounders over his reply. Social media goes wild and France is feeling on top of the world as she returns home to her novelist husband, Fred (Benjamin Biolay), and her long-haired son, Joseph (Gaëtan Amiel), who is more interested in his video game.
On a trip to the Sarhel, France interviews the Tuareg chief (Youannes Mohammed) resisting ISIS. Looking glamorous in her headscarf, she has him gaze wistfully into the sky and directs two of his man to strike poses for the camera to make her report more dramatic. All the while, she giggles to cameraman Lolo (Marc Bettinelli) about the mistakes they make and draws exasperated looks from the French army commander when the chief asks her to pose for a selfie.
Flushed with pride at how the package makes her look intrepid and empathetic, France hosts a dinner party to help launch Fred's new book and they exchange meaningful looks across the table after she confides to a friend that their marriage is `so-so'. But her mood takes another downward swing when she makes the front pages after accidentally knocking Baptiste (Jawad Zemmar) off his scooter in a traffic jam.
Lou thinks it's a storm in a tea cup and is surprised by France's penitent display when she visits Baptiste in hospital and then breaks down in tears on a chat show hosted by Chouchou (Lucile Roche). Next morning, France is less than amused when Fred beams at being invited on to the same show to promote his book and she shrugs off his breakfast reassurances that the fuss will blow over.
However, France is nettled when she is accused of being `useful, but pretty' after a heated debate with a politician (Xavier Lagarde) on her show. She is also appalled to discover that Baptiste's parents (Noura Benbahlouli and Abdellah Chahouat) have no income during his three-month convalescence and insists on giving them a cheque. As she leaves their banlieue home, she admits to never having given to charity before and she becomes emotional at a function at which a fellow diner explains that it is the duty of capitalists to give to the less fortunate. Further discomfited by a fan who asks whether she holds left- or right-wing views, France feels her eyes filling as she pauses on the red carpet before rushing off into the night.
Having visited a psychiatrist to complain that she is unhappy with her life, France reports from a war zone and comes under fire in a shelled hillside town. Back at the hotel, she chides Lolo for splashing in the pool and is so angry with Fred for calling to complain about the money she gave Baptiste that she tries unsuccessfully to flirt with the interpreter, who is miffed by her surprise that he is an architect by trade and decidedly uncomfortable when she tries to kiss him while everyone is panicking because of a nearby explosion.
Two days later, after a blazing row with Fred (in which she taunts him that she earns five times his income), France quits live on air. Lou is bowled over by the online response and reassures herself that France will be able to reinvent herself, as she fights back the tears at the news desk.
She's still feeling teary when she volunteers at a soup kitchen and gets sneered at by the homeless. No longer wearing her trademark red lipstick, she meets Baptiste to present him with a new scooter and he is thrilled by the recognition she receives as they sit in a quiet square near the Eiffel Tower. He wishes he could be famous, but France looks lost as she looks towards the sky and makes the decision to book a rest cure.
The screen take on an icy blue tint, as Fred drives towards the Alpine retreat. France is enjoying the solitude on the decking when Madame Arpel (Juliane Köhler) plonks herself down in the next deckchair and begins gossiping about the famous people seeking a cure. She is led away by an attendant and France allows herself to smile, as she realises the woman Mme Arpel didn't recognised was actually Angela Merkel (Marina Tamássy).
The next morning, she is doing her own version on the PE routine taking place on the snow when she meets Charles Castro (Emanuele Arioli). He prevents her from slipping over and comments on the beauty of the view. She seeks him out later in the day and is both relieved and slightly startled that he doesn't recognise her. He is a Latin teacher and finds it amusing when people stop to ask France for selfies. Charles waits for her to emerge from a therapy session and invites her for a walk. With a snow-capped peak behind then, them hug and kiss.
Despite the risk of being recognised, France meets Charles at a café in Paris. She's late and he has to leave to teach a class. As he goes to pay, however, she sees a message on his phone from an editor praising him for the story he has written about her. France is appalled that he would stoop so low to get a scoop and spits in his face when he claims to love her.
Lou is dismayed and gripped by the article when she meets France in a park. Her lips fully rouged again, France still feels furious, but let's slip a grin when she announces that she is returning to television. Her moment is ruined, however, when Charles sidles up and pleads with her not to abandon him.
Fresh from chiding an increasingly uncontrollable Joseph about his grades, France returns to the frontline and rollocks Lolo for not framing her properly as they flee from shelling. Eager to place herself at the heart of the story, she puts herself and the crew at risk. Yet she never seems bothered about the suffering people she is reporting on and even makes obscene gestures with the microphone while waiting for Lolo to film her. She shows an equal lack of concern when she joins a boatload of migrants crossing the Mediterranean for Italy. Indeed, having filmed her piece to camera, she clambers about a support boat so she can relax in comfort until the coastguard hoves into view and she can hop back on to the raft and make it look as though she is being rescued, along with the migrants.
Recovering her poise after Charles forces his way into her car, France returns to the air to present her report and chats with Lou in the gallery as the tape rolls. Unfortunately, Lou drops her tablet on a fader and their banter is broadcast and there is an outcry that France could exploit desperate people for a story and then make fun of their plight when she thinks no one can overhear. Careful to blame anyone but herself, Lou promises France that the fuss will soon be forgotten, even though they had to fight their way through a scrum outside the studio to reach their vehicle.
Just as it seems as if she couldn't sink any lower, France receives news that Fred and Joseph have been killed in a car crash on a winding coastal road. The incident is shown in silent slow motion, with a mournful voice singing on the soundtrack. Fred loses control, as the front wheel comes loose and the spinning car is pitched over a ledge by an oncoming truck. As the camera pulls away from Fred's lifeless body, flames start to rise from the vehicle.
She can't find a tear at the cemetery and is still feeling numb when she travels to a remote farmhouse on the Côte d'Opale with a new crew. They have come to interview Danièle (Annick Lavieville), whose husband has just been arrested for the rape and murder of a young girl. France asks why she married a man who had already been jailed for assault before they met. Danièle tries to explain that she thought she could reform him and insists that someone shouldn't be judged on a single mistake. But she accepts she was wrong and wants the world to know what she endured during 20 years of marriage to a monster.
As they visit the little shrine in the nearby lane, France turns down a selfie request from a small boy and his mother. Back in Paris, she is making notes on the visit when Charles calls. She invites him in and informs him that his cruel treachery rather pales into insignificance compared to what she has recently been through. Speaking slowly and sadly, she declares that there is no point trying to live up to old ideals or to fulfil expectations, as life has taught her that only the present matters.
She suggests a walk and Charles falls in behind her. They have not gone far before a man rushes past them and kicks seven shades out of a bicycle tethered to an iron fence. He threatens to bash them, too, before strutting off, leaving France to stare into the lens for the final time and resignedly rest her head on Charles's shoulder.
There's nothing critics like more than to throw up their hands and despair over the latest Bruno Dumont offering. The Cannes screening of France was followed by boos. Yet, if Leos Carax came up with this riff on the tropes of the classical screen melodrama, it would be hailed an ironic triumph.
The mercurial Dumont is too readily dismissed by those who refuse to take the trouble to engage with him and work to uncover the message and mischief he is striving to convey. This modish saga is what Vincente Minnelli would be doing if he was still around, a `woman's picture' dripping with style and venom, as Léa Seydoux channels her inner Lana Turner through the prism of Catherine Deneuve at her most icily chic.
There are also swipes at both Cinéma du Look and those glossy 1980s soaps that were full of meaningful glares like the ones that France and Fred exchange at amusingly excessive length during the excruciating dinner party in their gallery-like Place des Vosges apartment. But the prime target is the contemporary cult of celebrity and the way in which image prevails over substance and social media outrage trumps reasoned, fact-based debate.
The war zone sequences are both savage and surreal, as the narcissistic France cares more about how she comes across on camera than the story she is covering and the people it affects. Her behaviour on the migrant boat is outrageous. Yet one could imagine such a thing happening for real, unlike the gallery chat going out live for so long. France's honeytrapping and stalking by Charles also strains credibility, as does the spectacular tragedy of Fred's car crash. But Dumont isn't seeking to depict everyday reality here. This is soap opera with a blonde, Gallic Joan Crawford suffering nobly for her public.
What makes the action so acidicly droll is that it has been couched in style of a Chanel No.5 commercial. David Chambille's photography shimmers, while Erwin de Gal's production design and Alexandra Charles's costumes are as wittily de trop as Christophe's swooning score. Seydoux's performance is also as achingly acute as it is gnomically inscrutable, with each wistful glance at the camera out-Meghaning anything in the Markle media manipulation playbook.
Whether mugging at the Macron presser or passing the buck for her galley gaffe,
Blanche Gardin provides splendid support as the vaping aide who has become so desensitised by her endless exposure to the bilge sluicing around social media that she is no longer able to recognise genuine emotions or communicate in anything other than clichés and platitudes.
One can imagine dozens of actresses queuing up for these roles in a Michel Gondry-directed Hollywood remake entitled America. But no one options Dumont movies that blur lines so fuzzily that it's impossible to know where reality ends and satire begins. Besides, the US media is already beyond lampooning and who would make a film that is so openly contemptuous of its audience? The answer is obvious and that's why this is one of the best films of 2021.