Updated: Dec 4, 2021
It's been almost two weeks and I'm still thinking about Bruno Dumont's latest film, On A Half Clear Morning (France), which opened this year's 29th edition of the French Film Festival UK at London's Ciné Lumière. The film is a dark satire of the modern-day news media, and can be both unsettling and confusing at times. Our title character, France (played by Léa Seydoux, and named to denote both the person and the subject of Dumont's commentary) is a popular news anchor whose star is on the ascend. She represents the kind of narcissistic media who not only want to shape the narrative, but insert themselves into it and become part of the story. It's a subtle but insidious shift in the way news is conveyed, and it's obviously something that Dumont has thought a lot about.
France works closely with her producer Lou (the scene-stealing Blanche Gardin) to both present and direct the news through a combination of in-studio discussions and reports filmed on location as part of her evening programme. You can see her tendency to centre things around herself in the opening moments of the film when France attends a press conference being held by President Emmanuel Macron (in his unofficial film debut). Despite not really paying attention, France is personally called on for the first question of the day, and comes back with something provocative, designed to garner the most attention. According to Dumont, the crude (but funny) humour displayed in this opening scene was a result of Seydoux and Gardin's unscripted banter during filming.
We then meet France's family - her long-suffering husband Fred (Benjamin Biolay) and young son Jojo (Gaëtan Amiel) - who function as background players in the grand scheme of her life. It's implied that Fred was already a well-known writer before France became popular, but he's grown to resent her greater success just as she's come to resent him. It doesn't help that she looks down on his current work, although she does throw certain opportunities his way when they become available. Her son Jojo seems to capture more of France's attention, but it's still his father who tends to pick him up from school, makes sure he does his homework, and keeps things on track at home.
France is trying to do the right thing one morning by driving Jojo to school when she accidentally hits a bike courier (Jawad Zemmar). Whether it's genuine compassion or another cynical grab for attention, it's hard to tell, but France throws herself into taking care of the boy and his family until he can (literally) get back on his feet again. She pays for his medical expenses and buys him a new scooter, but the fall-out of the accident and the ensuing media circus lead her to quit her popular news programme (which looks to be modeled after Face aux territoires) and flee to a celebrity mountain resort where she can relax and recuperate at her own pace. Everything seems to be going well as she embraces her newfound anonymity and falls in love with another patient (Emanuele Arioli), but he turns out to be an undercover journalist who exposes their affair for his own cheap headline.
Motivated by guilt and shame, France returns to face the headlines (and her family) while her lover stalks her, trying to apologise and insist that what they had was real. It's all a little far-fetched, and the situation is compounded when the family tragically dies in a car accident while on holiday without her. The violence of that accident is almost comedic - like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon - as a tire blows out, causing the car to flip over several times, before colliding with an oncoming truck and being carried in the opposite direction. You'd think that was enough, but the car is left teetering on the edge of a cliff before dropping onto the jagged rocks below. That should be the end of it, but it's not, and you see their broken bodies spilling out of the car as it erupts in flames. I had to stifle a laugh, but it's the kind of shocked reaction I'm sure Dumont would appreciate.
Their loss is the final straw for France, but it feels like a waste of Biolay who was so engaging as Fred. I've seen him in a couple of films now (most notably Personal Shopper with Kristen Stewart) but I'm a big fan of his music - particularly last year's Grand Prix - so it was nice to see him on-screen again. Speaking of music, I would be remiss not to mention Christophe's original score with its dreamlike ambience and recurring motifs. I only recently discovered his music, thanks to its thoughtful inclusion in Suzanne Lindon's Spring Blossom (Seize printemps), and then picked up one of his records when I was in Paris a couple of months ago. This soundtrack was one of the last things he did before succumbing to COVID-19, and there's a fitting dedication to Christophe at the end.
With Fred and Jojo gone, and her heart thoroughly broken, France is encouraged by Lou to resume her career as the nation's favourite grieving news anchor. Again, she can't help directing and over-orchestrating her stories, which leads to more scandal as the fakery in her report on war-torn immigrants fleeing their country is exposed because of a mistake on live television. Her only recourse is to dive deeper into the heart of things, and she finds new meaning in her reportage on the disappearance of a local girl in the country's north.
It's a long and winding road for France, and it feels like there's many times the film could (and probably should) have ended. I was pretty sure it would end on a fairly abrupt and strange note - which it did - but there were five or six times I expected it to happen before it actually did. It would be fair to call the film indulgent, and I probably would have walked out with a much worse impression if it weren't for the Q&A with Bruno Dumont which followed immediately after the screening. A film shouldn't require that level of commentary to supplement or increase your appreciation, yet it's the second time that's happened in recent times, with the other instance being Leos Carax's Annette.
What I liked most about the Q&A with Dumont is the way he expressed his view on the news media today. I'll have to paraphrase, as I didn't write it down at the time, but the essence of his opinion is that he uses fiction to reflect reality, whereas the news media uses reality to reflect fiction - and I find that both relatable and intriguing. It echoes the sentiment of a book I'm currently reading, Stop Reading The News by Rolf Dobelli, which argues the case for removing the news cycle from your life. Dobelli says: "News is to the mind what sugar is to the body: appetising, easily digestible and extremely damaging. The media is feeding us titbits that taste palatable but do nothing to satisfy our hunger for knowledge. Unlike books and well-researched long-form articles, the news cannot satiate us." I'd probably add films to that list of things which can satiate us, but you get the point.
Aside from that, I also like the fact that when Dumont expressed his opinion, it provoked one of the audience members (presumably a journalist, mostly likely on television) to disagree and question him further. To use cinema as a form of provocation - and take on the role of agent provocateur - is far more interesting than simply telling a good story. And that is why, coming up on two weeks later, I am still thinking about On A Half Clear Morning - which is anything but clear. It's not my favourite film of the festival, but it's the one that I've spent the most time thinking about, and I get the impression Bruno Dumont would be very pleased with that result. Regardless of your feelings, there's a lot to unpack, and I'd recommend seeing it for yourself.
On A Half Clear Morning (France) is screening over the next month at Glasgow Film Theatre, Edinburgh Filmhouse, Aberdeen Belmont Filmhouse, Birmingham MAC, Stirling Macrobert Arts Centre, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Belfast Queen's Film Theatre, and Lewes Depot as part of the 29th French Film Festival UK.