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BERLINALE 2024 Competition

Bruno Dumont • Director of The Empire

"It’s not by telling others how to behave that you educate them, people need to be enlightened"

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- BERLINALE 2024: The French filmmaker revisits the sci-fi genre in his own unique style, exploring the inevitable porosity of Good and Evil

Bruno Dumont • Director of The Empire
(© Dario Caruso/Cineuropa)

We met with Bruno Dumont, who’s presenting his twelfth feature film, The Empire [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Bruno Dumont
film profile
]
, in competition at the 74th Berlinale, which sees him revisiting the sci-fi genre in his own unique style, exploring the inevitable porosity of Good and Evil, whilst also revealing a unique key in which to read his films

Cineuropa: Where did this project, the spark which gave rise to this new film, come from?
Bruno Dumont:
The spark… I love a challenge, and I wanted to bring the world of science-fiction into my own. I wanted to explore the origins of a type of cinema, let’s say European and naturalistic, like mine, where good and evil are linked by blurred boundaries. It’s a kind of cinema which people see as complicated, but it asks the same moral questions of good and evil as science-fiction cinema does. Except that science-fiction films separate the notions of good and evil, whereas naturalistic cinema mixes them together. It’s like we’re mythologising the present. As a viewer, I really like science-fiction for its ability to explain to us who we are, in a very playful but also very educational way. But, often, this kind of film ends up losing itself in the entertainment side of things and becoming daft. So I wanted to combine serious European cinema with entertaining cinema.

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In your film, it’s love and desire and therefore human nature which brings good and evil together.
It’s a literal way of showing how we’re pulled by opposing forces. There’s this ideal way of seeing things which would have us believe that some people are intrinsically, fundamentally good, and others fundamentally bad. Star Wars works along these lines: there are goodies and baddies. It’s not that these representations are false, but they’re directed at children who need to learn what good and evil are separately, before learning that they’re often mixed together. The aim of art is to purge us of evil by presenting it to us. But these days, we live in a world where people tell us that: "Art should tell us the truth, no more violence, no more sex, no more incest"; it no longer has a cathartic role, these days, art has to lead by example. But it’s not by telling others how to behave that you educate them; people need to be enlightened.

Your films depict inner torment but are primarily shot outside.
It’s because I believe that everything takes place inside of us, film is a representation of what’s going on in our heads, but a filmmaker’s job is to externalise everything, to put it all on the outside. Film isn’t just a projection; what you see on screen is what’s actually happening in your heart. All these inner struggles we experience throughout our lives are represented in this movie. The landscapes you see are inner landscapes, not northern France. The spaceship is in our hearts. That’s what film is, since the dawn of time. Cinema only speaks of our inwardness. Even when it’s a film set in space. Infinity is within us, it’s our quest for the absolute. And everything can be conveyed on screen, in my view.

On that point, you work with both professional and non-professional actors to convey your story.
I like working with non-professionals, because in a certain sense, they hold you back. And that’s a good thing. You shouldn’t have too much in the way of intent, because our intent is always the ideal. I find they have real truth, that they put the "human" into human nature. Professional actors represent the ideal in the film (Good and Evil who are "unmixed") and express an idea of saturation, which extends to their acting style. My non-professional actors are harder to decode.

Do your characters write themselves once you’ve found your actors?
They’re written, then they’re modified following the casting process and once we’ve properly met them. If I believed in characters, I would only ever hire professional actors: I’d give them a script and ask them to act it out. But I don’t believe in characters. There’s a slightly Marcel Duchamp tendency towards the ready-made, and characters who already exist outside of the film world. I need the opposite of what I am. I don’t need a geek. I’m a geek myself and that needs to disappear because I don’t like geeky films. When a director is full of ideas before getting started, something’s not right. You have to go a little against the director, that’s what I like. I like reluctance. But none of what I’m saying to you is in the film. It’s just like with architecture: there’s a lot of thought that goes into it, incredibly complex plans, but the expression and delivery of the product is straightforward, even if you’ve got some smoking theories behind it.

If you don’t believe in characters, what do you believe in, in your story?
In the changing reality of life.

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(Translated from French)

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