Northern France plays host to an epic battle of good and evil in Bruno Damont’s outre sci-fi

The Empire

Source: Berlinale

‘The Empire’

Dir. Bruno Dumont. France. 2024. 110mins

French critics often use the term ‘OVNIs’ – in English, ‘UFOs’ – to refer to films that seem to have flown in from furthest left-field with no reasonable explanation. Bruno Dumont has made more than a few such films, but with The Empire you can take ‘UFO’ literally, as the idiosyncratic auteur presents us with his version of an alien-invasion sci-fi epic.

There is little here to appeal outside the hardcore of long-term Dumont followers

True to form, though, the stakes are metaphysical, the intentions ironic and the setting characteristically Dumontian: the sand dunes of Northern France’s ‘Opal Coast’. It is, of course, always fascinating to find out what new avenue the ever-unpredictable Dumont is exploring – but once you’ve found out, The Empire has more or less made its point. Despite a handful of star names cast alongside Dumont’s usual motley selection of non-professionals, there is little here to appeal outside the hardcore of long-term Dumont followers – and even they may decide that this starship runs out of fuel too soon.

The film begins amid the coast’s sand dunes near a small village where new local arrival, flirty, phone-addicted Line (Lyna Khoudri, from Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and the recent Three Musketeers films) bumps into a neighbour, young fisherman Jony (newcomer Brandon Vlieghe), the father of a bonny two-year-old boy, Freddy. But why do people keep bowing down solemnly to each other? And why does a local man named Rudy (Julien Manier) suddenly whip out a Star Wars-style light sabre for a surprise decapitation?

It turns out that the village is the site of a battle between good and evil on a cosmic level. Freddy, referred to in the subtitles as ‘the Wain’, is the embodiment of evil on earth, and his dad is a member of a demonic alien force known as the ‘Zeros’. So, it turns out, is Line, who signals her devotion to the cause by canoodling with the wolfish Jony. Good, meanwhile, is represented by a local Amazon named Jane (Anamaria Vartolomei, from Audrey Diwan’s Happening), often seen dressed as a sort of intergalactic Lara Croft – when she is wearing much at all. Aided by Rudy, she’s the faithful servant of the benign ‘Ones’, whose leader materialises on the Coast in the form of the local mayor (Camille Cottin).

As for the forces of darkness, they are headed by a black blob of wobbly CGI ectoplasm that chooses to inhabit the human form of a hapless tourist guide. He is played by stage and screen eminence Fabrice Luchini, grinning madly and declaiming in full-voiced comédie-française style. He is having a rare old time here, pushing things even further over the top than in an earlier Dumont oddity, 2016’s Slack Bay; once you’ve seen this veteran collaborator with Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and François Ozon jumping up and down in an interstellar Pierrot costume, chanting, “Apocalypse! Apocalypse!”, you’ve seen it all.

The Empire boasts some impressively oddball VFX – notably, two alien spacecraft, respectively resembling a Gothic cathedral and the Palace of Versailles. These are seen both in the depths of space and hovering over the village, in an undeniably striking fashion that suggests Dumont has been making a close study of Denis Villeneuve. The use of existing grand edifices as locations and as references for the starships makes for a grandeur that clashes ironically with the rural mundanity of coastal Northern France, sometimes to appealingly surreal effect – as when a cathedral-like ship docks on to a stone bunker in a field. Yet the meticulous nature of the extra-terrestrial design ultimately makes the whole thing feel laboured, where the B-movie tone calls for a more insouciant lightness of execution.

The cast, pros and non-pros alike, rise to the absurdity by playing the whole affair absolutely straight – Luchini’s baroque goofiness apart. Spiky-haired newcomer Vlieghe makes a strong impression as the sneeringly priapic Jony, while both Vartolomei and Khoudri rise gamely above the limitations of roles that require them to be flesh-flashing bande dessinée pin-ups in a style that is unusually unreconstructed, at least by Dumont’s usual standards. (Incidentally, fans of Dumont’s TV comedy P’tit Quinquin will note the return of Philippe Jore and (a rather weary-looking) Bernard Pruvost as ever-confused cops Carpentier and Van der Weyden, providing intermittent light relief and helping fit The Empire a little more snugly into the Bruno Dumont Cinematic Universe.) The soundtrack is lavished with Bach, both straight and, with kitsch inflections, in the jazz style that was so chic in the 60s.

What the film is really about is a matter of conjecture beyond the obvious confrontation of good and evil. Dumont’s use of architectural models seems to play these two principles against each other as an opposition of church and state, but then he seems to be ridiculing the simplistic duality that underlies some (but hardly all) trad sci-fi cinema. It is hard to decide whether Dumont is treating his genre borrowings with belittling contempt, or getting a kick out of the possibilities offered; it seems safe to assume both. And while the overall weirdness has charm and shock effect, once you’ve got over the surprise of Dumont being this flippantly outre the pleasure wears thin.

Production company: Tessalit Productions

International sales: Memento International

Producers: Jean Bréhat, Bertrand Faivre

Cinematography: David Chambille

Editors: Bruno Dumont, Desidera Rayner

Production design: Erwan Le Gal, Célia Marolleau

Main cast: Lyna Khoudri, Anamaria Vartolomei, Camille Cottin, Fabrice Luchini, Brandon Vlieghe