A few months after Lea Seydoux starred in a love letter to journalism with The French Dispatch (2021), she features as the face of its worst impulses in Bruno Dumont’s tragicomic France. Her titular reporter and news anchor France De Meurs (Lea Seydoux) isn’t so much interested in covering the story as she is in being the story. A press conference with the president early on in the film isn’t an opportunity to hold him to account, but an opportunity for her to make headlines by doing so. It’s the digital age and France relishes in knowing exactly how to get those views. She’s always performing, to the point where she’s tamped down the natural impulse to wipe away tears. She lets them drip, down her cheeks, off the tip of her nose, into the sides of her mouth in a cultivated exaggeration of sadness.
France is sharp enough to work the angles of a story, and narcissistic enough to know of all her best angles on camera. While reporting inside a war zone, she treats a soldier like one would a pet dog, snapping her fingers to get him to look a certain way, and eventually focusing the majority of her report on herself. No matter what the story, it’s still just a vignette in the eventual France biopic. Everyone else is an extra.
Soon however, France, an architect of sensationalist media, finds herself a victim of it when she accidentally knocks down a motorist and becomes front-page news. While her name points to the problem of manipulative news channels being a nationwide one, the film is neither biting enough to be a full-blown satire or insightful enough to be a portrait of existential crisis. Instead, it sways between a heightened childishness and a mournful tedium. France’s manipulations aren’t as transparent as those of journalist Suzanne Maretto (Nicole Kidman) in To Die For (1995), which prevents her from becoming a caricature but also makes the movie frustratingly opaque.
Much of the film’s second half deals with France trying to locate her own lost humanity, but by that time we’ve seen her lie and cheat and manipulate her way through so many situations, on air and in real life, it’s hard to believe that there’s really anything there for her to find. A car crash towards the end should be devastating, but Dumont films it like an action setpiece that feels like it belongs in a different film and draws it out to the point where it gets tiring. Is he making a comment on the media’s impulse to neatly package and sell even the worst of human tragedies? Or that jaded audiences are to blame for the measures news channels resort to to get their attention? Even after 2 hours and 13 minutes, France’s lack of clear vision means all it can offer audiences is a shrug in response.
The initial portions of Journey To The West, Dashan Kong’s bleakly funny feature debut, establish its protagonist as someone who might have an eye on the stars, but his head fixed firmly on his shoulders. Tang Zhijun (Yang Haoyu), editor in chief of Universe Exploration magazine, believes in aliens. Not in the crazy conspiracy theory way, but with the soft-spoken, dignified air of someone interested in seeing how far the limits of scientific discovery stretch. If the universe is comparable to a beach, he reasons, then Earth can’t be the only grain of sand out there. It’s a logical argument. The film’s opening credits are set to a montage of mankind’s greatest accomplishments, like the Wright brothers’ invention of the plane and the Apollo moon landing, but also its greatest failures – nuclear explosions, war and melting ice caps. Can you really blame Tang for wanting to know what other planets have to offer? it slyly seems to ask. The answer is world peace. He’s convinced that coming face to face with another species would force mankind to forget their petty squabbles and unite.
As the years go by, however, his single-minded focus tips over into obsession and eccentricity. His marriage crumbles, his daughter succumbs to suicide and a friend he convinced to get into the business of selling telescopes suffers financial losses. That’s the tragic irony of Tang’s situation, that a life spent in pursuit of a better world has brought ruin to everyone around him. That includes himself, if the cluttered production design of his office, with its broken heater and newspaper-covered windows, and the squalor of his cramped home are anything to go by.
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Kong juxtaposes the melancholy of Tang’s life with the inherent absurdity of his profession, which involves false sightings and no shortage of scammers looking for gullible marks. The actors have excellent comic timing and Kong makes smart use of sight gags to inject some levity into the material. As it unfolds, however, the movie takes on a more lyrical, existential tone, slipping into the found family genre when Tang and his employees set off to yet another site that’s reported unexplained cosmic phenomena. The journey is long and often frustrating, but the film frames curiosity as a gift in a world that’s too often jaded. Tang, who has spent so long searching for the unexpected in the outer reaches of space, finds himself disarmingly surprised by his reality. Each of the characters have their beliefs challenged in some way or the other, explained away by logic and reason, but it doesn’t seem to matter much by the end. If you keep looking for what’s out there, you’ll miss what’s right in front of you, is this weird, wonderful film’s conclusion.
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