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The Empire (Bruno Dumont, 2024)

Ever since the beginning, the films of Bruno Dumont have seemed to come from a planet far, far away. From the stark savagery of his earlier, more naturalistic work—The Life of Jesus (1997), Humanité (1999)—to the baroque farces that have occupied him over the past decade, beginning with the slapstick murder mystery Li’l Quinquin (2014), the now 65-year-old director has made a career of leaning into cinematic artifice to draw out strange and sacred elements within French history and contemporary life. A former philosophy teacher, Dumont is interested in the ways in which film—with its power to sculpt reality—can manifest the conceptual crises that underpin the human condition. What, he asks, does it mean to have faith? Or to behave according to a moral compass when the concept of “good and evil” is as spectacular an invention as God?

Still, few could have expected Dumont’s latest act to take the form of a Hollywood-style science-fiction epic. The Empire, on the one hand, plays like a Star Wars spoof, and on the other is a natural extension of Dumont’s transcendent style, spiked with crude sexuality and freak-show mysticism à la Twin Peaks. There are lightsabers, intergalactic travels, a Light Side and a Dark Side led by humanoid warriors—or, rather, space creatures that take on the bodies of provincial townies in the north of France. On Earth, an innocuous-looking child known as “the Wain” embodies all the evil in the universe. Members of the Dark Side, including the Wain’s father, a louche fisherman; an iPhone-obsessed floozy; and a wild-eyed space jester played by Fabrice Luchini, are tasked with protecting the child. Adherents to the Light Side—a bikini-clad Jedi (Anamaria Vartolomei) and her sparrow-faced sidekick—must destroy the kid. Dumont pokes fun at the absolutism that dictates these warring factions, split between 0s and 1s, staging executions of random locals that come off as completely arbitrary (if only to us mere mortals). The banality of the Opal Coast countryside—with its cows, lazy cops, and junkyard aesthetics—assumes an awesome power thanks to Dumont’s dazzling wide compositions, creating humorous parallels between base human activities and celestial journeys. Ultimately, these mythologies devolve into nothingness, with the action (in the finale, a spaceship showdown) subsumed into a magnificent black hole, a void not unlike the serene indifference, the boredom, of quiet country folk.

I spoke to the director in French after the premiere of The Empire at this year’s Berlinale, and translated our conversation below.

I was surprised when I heard that you’d be making a science-fiction movie, a genre that seems to have nothing to do with your work. Can you talk about the origins of the movie and what attracted you to the genre?

I’m interested in what cinema means, writ large. In the cinema of today, there are two kinds that are somewhat opposed: naturalistic European cinema and American cinema, specifically science fiction and the space opera. I find these two poles interesting, and we don’t often think of them in conversation. Yet they often concern the same things—obviously they take completely different approaches, but their themes are the same. In my cinema, I’ve long wanted to articulate an understanding of the meaning of good and evil, but this time I wanted to approach it through the popular American method of cinema, which is about entertainment and distraction. I don’t mean to mock that, either. I like popular cinema, and my intention is not to point a finger at the Americans and say, “Oh là là, look at how stupid they are.” American cinema has its strengths and its defects, just like European cinema. Naturalism has pertinent qualities, but it can also be quite difficult, whereas Hollywood movies are easier, more accessible. They pose questions and they simplify the answers for the public, and that comes across very powerfully in the space opera, a genre that by its very nature reckons with grand ideas, metaphysics, and transcendence. You see that in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and you also see that in Star Wars movies. The question of the infinite—that’s something that’s easily evoked when you set things in space. It’s not complicated; it’s plainly visible. The same goes for good and evil: it’s clear what’s what. Everything is rendered directly. But in the European tradition—wow [laughs]—it’s not clear at all. The hero of The Life of Jesus [Dumont’s debut feature], he’s super-complicated.

In the press notes you call The Empire a prequel to The Life of Jesus.

Freddy, the hero of The Life of Jesus, poses a lot of problems, even in the context of European cinema. To make someone who is evil seem heroic—that can be problematic. So I wanted to make a film that explains why Freddy is evil, an extraordinary story about the forces of good and evil that have constructed Freddy. That’s why I turned to American cinema, which lends itself to the most fantastic stories. If you recall, the small child in The Empire is named Freddy [aka the Wain]. He’s the prince of darkness, but he looks completely ordinary.

I remember reading that part of the reason you cast Léa Seydoux in France (2021) is because her star power allows her to communicate the artifice of celebrity. In the case of your lead actress here, Anamaria Vartolomei, what qualities did you feel she brought to the film that corresponded to its themes? 

I wanted an actress capable of embodying the idea of goodness and grace. So I knew I needed to find a professional actress, someone who could play a superwoman, an impeccable soldier, a royal being, as well as someone who can become increasingly human throughout the film. Someone who can express conflicting emotions—namely the experience of love, which complicates her character’s objectives. So I needed an actress who has both a human and ideal dimension—someone who can be fragile and can be convincingly upended by love.

Beginning with 2016’s Slack Bay, your cinema became more aligned with the absurd and the baroque, but I also noticed that you abandoned the visceral sex scenes that distinguished your earlier work. Sex is back in The Empire, which is a delight in the context of your filmography, but also the blockbuster in general, which tends to be so sexless. 

Sex has to have ideas, cinematographic ideas. So I had the idea of shooting from a long distance. Creating this distance between the viewer and the sex act, which happens against a landscape, a natural background, allowed me to evoke this idea of the origin of the world. Jane [Vartolomei’s character] discovers sex; she detects her bodily impulses and waves of desire like some sort of mysterious interference. She knows she has to address it. There’s nothing predatory about it. Jony [Freddy’s father, played by Brandon Vlieghe] doesn’t come after her; she’s the one that knows she has to act on it. I was interested in the question—why not make love? One must enjoy and make the most out of our human forms. My characters are androids, but they’re in these fleshy bodies that allow them to experiment and fuck, because that’s what humans do. So I wanted to present sex as something fresh, new, and naïve.

This is your most expensive project; it uses special effects and features intergalactic fight scenes. 

In general, I like space operas because of their spectacular scales, and the sophistication of their effects. Here is where you can witness what’s new in cinema, technologically. At the same time, the genre can be so cliché, and its approach to spectacle often follows a familiar pattern. So many filmmakers take after Kubrick and Star Wars. European filmmakers, in particular, are obsessed with American-style special effects, and they try to copy them and always fail because they don’t have the same resources. We’re condemned to lousy repetitions. So with The Empire, I wanted to stage a reinvention.

As in the spaceships, which—correct me if I’m wrong—are modeled after real French landmarks. 

I looked to earthly architectural wonders for the spaceships. I wanted to place them against the wondrous, infinite backdrop that is space in order to communicate a metaphysical force. When one goes to a Gothic cathedral, one feels a sense of mystery. I wanted to portray this private form of spiritual exploration on a grand scale. So I looked to Sainte-Chapelle in Paris [which inspired the spaceship that belongs to the Light Side]. I found an architect to do a mock-up of Sainte-Chapelle, and then I had a designer tweak it via special effects, to bring it slightly out of its traditional trappings. The Dark Side’s spaceship is modeled after the Château de Versailles.

How about the orbs that represent the good and evil masters? 

In fact, we didn’t have that much money, so I had to improvise and come up with something that could communicate good and evil simply and effectively. In L’il Quinquin, you already see the black material, which manifests evil as a literal black plague. Attaching light to goodness seemed only natural.

I’d like to talk a bit about Fabrice Luchini’s character and how you developed his uncanny, alien performance. 

I worked with Luchini on Slack Bay, and I wrote this character specifically for him. Actually, Luchini had a bit of difficulty understanding his character, which was the same case in Slack Bay. I find that finding the right costume is a big help for actors—that happened with Lyna Khoudri [who plays the phone-addicted Line] and Anamaria Vartolomei—and that’s certainly what made Luchini’s mind click into place on both occasions. In The Empire, we found him the costume worn by [actor and theater director] Louis Jouvet in a production of Don Juan—Jouvet is one of Luchini’s great inspirations. Then I added the headdress from F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926), and that completed the look. It’s a psychological thing, because after he started wearing this costume, he found the right key of absurdity. Then, I simply let him run with it.

Beatrice Loayza is a writer and editor who contributes regularly to The New York Times, The Criterion Collection, Artforum, 4Columns, and other publications.