Berlinale 2024 review: The Empire (Bruno Dumont)

“A film that will gain Dumont few new fans, but those receptive to his drolleries will chuckle at its unbelievable lines and Luchini’s unique interpretation of grandiose stupidity in this 21st century update to Spaceballs.”

The intergalactic Prince of Darkness has been born. Not as one would expect on some planet with two suns in a galaxy far, far away, but in the unsuspecting mundanity of Boulogne-sur-Mer, the location of many a Bruno Dumont film. The French iconoclast director returns to France’s Opal Coast, a region that inspired films ranging from the austere Hors Satan to the very much not austere Ma Loute; no doubt a wide range, but with sci-fi spoof The Empire he widens the gap even further. The VFX-heavy satire of the simplistic good vs. evil narratives of the likes of Star Wars (by presenting the audience with, well, a very simplistic good vs. evil narrative), can only be described as ‘absolutely bonkers’. Fans of Dumont’s straight-faced absurdism will be salivating at this, though general audiences may leave bewildered and feel as clueless as the local duo of police officers (yes, that duo) investigating a lightsaber-induced beheading.

Crab and lobster fisher Jony (newcomer Brandon Vlieghe) is a young father with an unusual reverence for his newborn son Freddy. No wonder, given that the little blonde brat is prophesied to grow up to be the devil himself. At least that is the belief of Jony and his alien race, some of whom have taken over the bodies of Boulogne-sur-Mer’s poor citizens. They are the foot soldiers of the ‘zeroes’, the servants of evil, whose overlord Belzébuth (an out-of-control Fabrice Luchini) is keeping an eye on the proceedings of his underlings from a large spaceship in the shape of the Versailles palace. Jony’s small army of foot soldiers consists of the flirtatious, Lolita-esque Line (Lyna Khoudri), a new arrival in town, as well as a group of ‘knights’ on horseback who function as a Greek chorus of sorts.

Story conventions dictate that their forces of evil have to contend with the forces of good, because no darkness can exist without light in universes like this. The opposing faction of space creatures with a vested interest in Earth is watched over by a woman simply named The Queen (Camille Cottin), whose vessel of choice is a giant flying Gothic cathedral, mirrored on both ends and with a strong resemblance to Paris’ Sainte-Chappelle. Her sentinels on the ground are the ‘ones’ (to further the binary theme), spearheaded by Jane (Anamaria Vartolomei), whose wardrobe consists almost entirely of Lara Croft rip-offs, and her sidekick Rudy (Julien Manier), a local man who looks exactly how you think Luke Skywalker would look if he walked around in the P’tit Quinquin universe.

Because that is indeed the universe that The Empire is set in, besides of course the universe at large. The clearest indication of this is the bumbling pairing of Bernard Pruvost and Philippe Jore as two cops investigating the decapitation of Freddy’s mother, recurring characters from P’tit Quinquin and Dumont’s other mini-series Coincoin and the Extra-humans (why are extraterrestrials so interested in this particular part of France?). It should be no surprise that they do not solve the crime. The desolate landscapes of the Opal Coast, gorgeously shot by DP David Chambille, also have featured in Dumont’s work, though the opening shots of the area’s dunes draw comparisons to Villeneuve’s sand adventures, albeit with a bit more greenery. In a further bit of inspiration taken from the Canadian helmer, the arrival of The Queen’s upside-down cathedral vividly evokes the landing scene from Arrival.

These visual inspirations aside, The Empire mostly plays with the tropes of Star Wars‘ space opera genre: the eternal battle of good versus evil, a special child, armadas of spaceships, scantily clad female heroines. Though if memory serves, Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer didn’t include a three-piece jazz band. The scenes in space provide the film with its biggest opportunities for eccentricity and wild production design, which is also channelled by the actors commanding their respective fleets. While initially formless blobs whose speech is not dissimilar to Twin Peaks‘ Man from Another Place, once Cottin and Luchini take human shape by invading the bodies of the town’s mayor and a hapless tourist guide, in particular Luchini has a field day with Dumont’s silliness. Seeing the veteran actor excitedly jump up and down in a Pierrot-like costume while shouting “The apocalypse! The apocalypse!” surpasses even his unhinged work in Ma Loute. General Hux could never. The rest of the cast plays it straight, spouting ridiculous world-building nonsense in deadpan seriousness. Its is Dumont’s brand of humour, and your mileage may vary.

To search for deeper layers in The Empire is like looking for the cause of a severed head if you do not know lightsabers exist: it’s useless. The space armadas of good and evil being represented by the church and the monarchy respectively might merit slight discussion, though the film provides no other base than this. Perhaps Jony and Jane represent another battle, that of the sexes; through their sexual encounter, which like the few other instances of sex in the film is shot from a great distance, it can also be construed that good and evil are inside all of us, an idea further compounded by the idea of good and evil taking over the unsuspecting, gullible townspeople. Such readings are a futile intellectual exercise when the clearest intention of The Empire is to satirize the emptiness of Hollywood storytelling by stripping it from its spectacle, impressive effects work aside. It is a joke that is stretched thin in its near two-hour runtime, and this is a film that will gain Dumont few new fans, but those receptive to his drolleries will chuckle at its unbelievable lines and Luchini’s unique interpretation of grandiose stupidity in this 21st century update to Spaceballs.

Image copyright: Tessalit Productions