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Bruno Dumont L'Empire

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L’Empire (The Empire) | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

L’Empire (The Empire) | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

The Satire Strikes Back: Dumont Claims His Own Multi-Verse

Bruno Dumont L'EmpireIt’s sometimes difficult to predict what mode French auteur Bruno Dumont will be choosing for his latest film project. Initially revered for his rural, austere tendency for Neo-realism, which earned him comparisons to Bresson and Pialat, Dumont has also shown a penchant for outrageous provocations and thorny social satires. His latest, L’empire, was rumored to be a Star Wars parody, but even this kind of statement is rather superficial considering Dumont seems to hold such reference points in cultural contempt. The film quite infamously triggered the self-exile and retirement of Adèle Haenel from the French film industry, which may lead many to expect Dumont would be pushing boundaries with this odd bird premise. However, the only real endurance test will be your patience in wrestling with a highly absurd, incredibly repetitive story with purposefully (?) questionable performances that some might argue has some jokes. Whether they’re funny or not is probably the more interesting discussion.

For those who believed Dumont’s incendiary 2021 title France (read review) was a masterpiece, expectations may likely need to be tempered for L’empire. Without a doubt being self-indulgent, it’s perhaps no more so than his two recent Joan of Arc films. If one were to remove the bland sci-fi elements Dumont employs, it’s a film which features a lot of walking and talking about who’s going to have control over the world. Two inconsequentially named groups, the Zeros and the Ones, (supposedly good vs. evil, but, of course, act the same), are forced to wage war. A baby is born on the idyllic Opal Coast, a prince who will determine the balance of power shifting to one group or the other (think any number of narratives, from Willow to Jesus Christ as much as it could be a reference to Luke Skywalker).

Bruno Dumont L’Empire (The Empire) Review

The leading entities from either side request their human avatar emissaries in the region to assist in finding them human forms for the impending battle. Belzebuth selects a local tour guide (Fabrice Luchini) and La Reine becomes the local mayor (Camille Cottin). Working for La Reine is the scantily clad Jane (Anamaria Vartolomei), as defined by her bare midriff as she is her lightsaber skills in training her new protege, a man who is still half human. Caring for the child is Jony (Brandon Vlieghe), who reports to Belzebuth. Jony is meanwhile attracted to a vapid tourist (Lyna Khoudri) and recruits her for duty. Mixing this all up is the eventual sexual union of Jane and Jony.

Dumont injects some familiar faces with the inclusion of Bernard Provost and Philippe Jore, returning to play the same detectives from his Li’l Quinquin films. They’re both a sight for sore eyes, but they aren’t called upon to do much besides bumble around the periphery trying to find answers to local UFO reports thanks to the alien turmoil going on.

Bruno Dumont L’Empire (The Empire) Review

Vartolomei, the lead from Audrey Diwan’s Happening (2021), and Khoudri seem to be having the most fun hamming it up, but in essence they’re really not able to do much. Luchini is in bombastic form, like he was transported from a Danny Boon or Jerry Lewis production as he screams, dances, and struts. Camille Cottin (whose garb has her resembling Cloris Leachman) is a bit more interesting, and fans of Twin Peaks should appreciate Dumont’s ‘borrowing’ of certain language elements. Alternating between being outright obnoxious and infrequently sublime, L’empire is certainly recommended for Dumont enthusiasts, but would have likely benefited from being less alienating.

Reviewed on February 18th at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival – Main Competition section. XXX mins.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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