Playing his signature brand of rural French absurdity in stark counterpoint to the grandiose strains of a space opera, Bruno Dumont returns with The Empire: his Barbarella bourguignon, his dijionnaise Dune. The Empire is the story of two warring factions: one whose mothership resembles the palace of Versailles; the other’s as if someone glued together two Notre Dames, crypt to crypt. It follows their envoys on earth, now in human form and attempting to capture a toddler who they believe to be the Chosen One––whose mere presence makes them bow down like bodies in rigor mortis. There are blasé beheadings with lightsabers, a group of men on Boulonnais horses who call themselves the Knights of Wain, and, for no apparent reason, the commandant (Bernard Pruvost) and lieutenant (Philippe Jore) from P’tit Quinquin.

If that all sounds like a mixed bag it’s probably because The Empire is one: Dumont’s scattershot film doesn’t always satisfy, but its scope and images are something to behold. Working with David Chambille, his cinematographer since the Joan of Arc / Jeanne duology, Dumont gives grandeur to the ordinary: low-angle close-ups that isolate actors, almost silhouetted in front of the wide, blue open sky. That sense of scale (more on the connotations later) is built upon in later sequences set in outer space and, later still, of ships landing on Earth. It’s incredible how potent a shrewd use of perspective can be: the eyes are more easily tricked than we think, and the simple act of establishing that something is large before letting it tower over a regular-sized thing is a trick most large-canvas filmmakers seem to forget. The first time we see inside the palace mothership, shot in what looks like a Berlin museum (again, connotations) the simple effect of replacing a window or two with the night’s sky fully convinced me of the building’s enormity. It allows a film like The Empire, made on a relatively paltry budget (reportedly in the region of $8 million) to feel vast, even cosmic.

Dumont’s commitment to the bit, at least in terms of aesthetics, comes in stark contrast to the film’s half-cooked plotline: not interested in living up to its imagery, it barely coheres. The Empire essentially follows two duos: Line (Lyna Khoudri) and Jony (Brandon Vlieghe), and Jane (Anamaria Vartolomei) and Rudy (Julien Manier). Jony is a denizen of the palace ship––who are led by a spooky floating ball of black goo (its demonic moniker is Belzébuth) that eventually takes the form of Fabrice Luchini––and converts the human line to be like him. Jane and Rudy hail from the church ship and spend their time on earth practicing with their lightsabers and running about, seemingly unbothered by the forthcoming intergalactic war. In fact, they are quite taken by their new hosts. (“Humans are endearing. And amusing,” Jane notes, in a sentence that could tagline this and any other Dumont film.) They go to the beach and check out a farmers’ market. When humans approach them, they get back into character as the bodies they’ve snatched so as not to scare them off––it’s all quite pleasant, really. The drama only escalates when Jony and Jane run into one another and have sex, leaving the rival aliens star-crossed and apparently the universe in the balance.

Dumont often cuts abruptly from such moments to some bombastic space stuff, and it’s a testament to his sense of timing that the joke mostly lands. On the other side of that coin, the director’s reliance on unprofessional actors, usually a strength, can feel a touch exploitative here. There is plenty of fun to be had in Empire‘s clash of the common and the celestial, but it’s not always clear at whose expense the joke is aimed at. Adèle Haenel was originally attached to play Jane (which would have made the film her comeback to the industry) but left the project after disputes with Dumont over what she found to be “dark, sexist, and racist” content. That the camera angles recall Riefenstahl and the warring factions suggest heightened versions of the church and state (all hallmarks of the genre) are, I suspect, parts of Dumont’s elaborate joke, but he could have done with making his point a bit clearer––regardless of who is left standing by film’s close. (Knowing that Virginie Efira, so brilliant in Benedetta, was once attached was not the only thing that made me pine for Verhoeven’s satirical nous.) Adding to all that, Vartolomei––who was so brilliant in Audrey Diwan’s Happening and again showcases her remarkable presence here––receives an excessive amount of the film’s gaze.

It’s always curious to see such a lauded French auteur compete in Berlin. For all the German festival’s charms, it can no longer compete for the hottest titles, and Cannes, more than anywhere, is notorious for keeping its friends close––not least when they’re locals. Was The Empire just a bit too slight for Thierry Frémaux and company? Perhaps, but either way: Berlin should be happy to have it. Dumont’s space oddity might not always land on the right side of its jokes and provocations, but every now and then it takes the breath away.

The Empire premiered at the 2024 Berlinale.

Grade: B

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