Critique of “Dune”: Denis Villeneuve makes the Herbert classic his own

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The story of “Dune” is sparked by an ambitious, cumbersome and misguided transfer of power – an endeavor that is terribly expensive and seems doomed to frustration and defeat. Something similar could be said of previous major attempts to snatch Frank Herbert’s literary colossus from the big screen in 1965, though recent history has sometimes viewed these failures with an indulgent smile. The undoubtedly trippy and never completed version of Alejandro Jodorowsky has become a very mythical cinematic ruin. David Lynch’s 1984 flop, hated by many (including Lynch himself), may yet inspire spasms of awe for its blend of narrative intransigence and visionary strangeness.

Yet as far as “Dune” endures, it does so on the strengths of Herbert’s extraordinarily prescient labor – its echoes of a real world ravaged by oil wars, climate change, and other consequences of greed. human – rather than nothing to do with its dubious cinematic heritage. One of the book’s least mysteries is that it shaped the iconography of so many classic sci-fi and fantasy films – most obvious, but not exclusively, “Star Wars” – without producing a classic on its own. . Conventional wisdom has long held that “Dune” is infilmable, that its interwoven parables of colonial oppression, ecological disaster, and messianic deliverance are too vast to be contained within the flattening parameters of the movie screen.

The masterfully brooding new “Dune,” which was just unveiled at the Venice International Film Festival and is expected to hit US theaters and HBO Max subscribers on October 22, boldly seeks to overturn that prophecy. With a methodical balance and an overwhelming spectacle, French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (who wrote the screenplay with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) draws you into a vision of the future that is surprisingly vivid, at times plausibly disconcerting. If those cursed shots prior to “Dune” were examples of what the French call a “cursed film”, this imposing new vision aspires to be the opposite: perhaps a “Mahdi film”, to refer to the often Arabic word. launched to the young savior. -future, Paul Atréides (Timothée Chalamet), as he embraces his destiny.

The fulfillment of this destiny will have to wait; “Dune: Part One”, as viewed onscreen, is the first of a planned two-part adaptation, which means that any assessment of Villeneuve’s accomplishments must be tentative at best. For now, it’s hard to deny the excitement of feeling swept away by the great gusts of sand, spice, and interplanetary intrigue in this film, done with such an overwhelming level of craftsmanship in its smothered aridity. dust you may want to pull your mask a little tighter in the theater. You may also feel a more nuanced sense of admiration for Villeneuve’s efforts to preserve while streamlining the novel’s imaginative essence, to translate Herbert’s heady vanities and obscure nomenclature into a successful, prestige idiom.

Let him succeed – and for an impressive period, I think he does – his own meteoric rise in Hollywood has clearly prepared him for the mission. This is not the first time that Villeneuve has shown a superb eye for the textured and chromatic undertones of the sand, like the deserts of the Middle East of “Incendies”, the American-Mexican border areas of “Sicario” and the Las Vegas ruins from “Blade Runner 2049” will attest to this. And like “Blade Runner 2049” and especially “Arrival”, “Dune” is another unusually philosophical speculative fiction that reflects on the difficulties of language and coexistence.

At the start of the film, a superficial relaxation was orchestrated between the warring royal strongholds of Atreides and Harkonnen, led respectively by the noble Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and the grotesque Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (a Stellan Skarsgard transfigured by prosthesis ). The heads of “Dunes” will know the rest: by imperial decree, House Harkonnen must renounce the stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, alias Dune, which is both inhospitable to life and a much coveted source. House Atreides will assume control of the planet and its rich concentrations of spices, a drug-like substance whose life-prolonging properties have made it the most prized commodity in the universe.

Notably, these narrative foreplay are presented by Chani (Zendaya), one of the Fremen, the thick-skinned, blue-eyed indigenous people of Arrakis. Long acclimatized to the stifling heat of the planet and the deadly giant sand worms, they suffered bitterly under their cruel lords Harkonnen and have no reason to suspect that the Atreids will be any different. Villeneuve’s sympathetic attention to the Fremen resembles a first statement of principle, a promise that this “Dune” could radically reframe history from their point of view. For much of the film, however, Chani and his people remain fleeting presences, only glimpsed in the hazy visions of Duke Leto’s son, Paul.

Chalamet, always good at suggesting both the insensitivity of youth and unlimited potential, proves to be an inspired choice for the role of a young man who is both a pampered heir and a strangely unknown quantity. On the Atreid home planet Caladan, he is trained with avuncular ailment by his father’s minions, including brilliant security expert Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson), muscular sword master Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and talented weapons teacher Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin, not exactly the “ugly hunk of a man” described in the book). Paul is also a source of pride and anxiety for the Duke, poignantly played by Isaac as a leader who aspires to do well for his family, his people and the Fremen, even though he suspects that House Atreides might being in the process of falling into a carefully set trap. .

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in “Dune”.

(Chia Bella James / Warner Bros.)

But Paul’s most important mentor is his mother, Lady Jessica (a stunning Rebecca Ferguson), a member of an obscure and oracular fraternity known as Bene Gesserit for whom Paul poses both a problem and a source of fascination. . Led by an imperious Reverend Mother (a heavily veiled but unmistakable Charlotte Rampling), the Bene Gesserit have mastered many skills, including “voice,” a form of mind control rendered here via menacing auditory distortions that, along with sound deep and menacing of the soundtrack Hans Zimmer’s rumblings and thrilling score – make “Dune” a symphony for the ears as well as a feast for the eyes.

It is, it must be admitted, a rather monochrome feast, drier than rich, despite a succulent foreground of the dunes of Arrakis which recalls the crisp curls of an overcooked meringue. Much of the palace’s plot is played out in muted tones and symmetrical compositions (cinematography is by the great Greig Fraser), part of a rigorously color-controlled aesthetic that extends to the production design. futuro-brutalist by Patrice Vermette and utilitarian costumes by Jacqueline West. A cold, fascist glow seems to cling to the royal formations of the Atreids and their state-of-the-art ornithopters (like helicopters, but with blades that flutter like insect wings), all flawless design cues. in a show of orderly technological and militaristic power.

Villeneuve wants to subvert and disrupt this spectacle, which he accomplishes in part by consciously uplifting women in this male-dominated story. Ferguson’s energetic presence in the expanded role of Lady Jessica is one example; another is the genre rework of Liet Kynes (a striking Sharon Duncan-Brewster), Arrakis’ deeply informed planetologist. It’s Kynes who helps the Atreids adjust to their desert environment, accompanying them at one point to a spice harvesting site where they get a terrifying first glimpse of a giant sandworm in action, its great mouth opening like a raging quicksand vortex.

This and other action streak is handled with masterful poise, including several intimate fight scenes executed with skin-tight energy shields and blood hiding. But as always, Villeneuve’s real talent is less in the staging of violence than in the nauseating anticipation of it; he likes to linger in the looming threat of chaos, in the tense moments before the worm (sand) turns. This gift serves him well enough in “Dune”, whose plot is based on pervasive threats, assassination attempts and a series of devastating betrayals that send Paul and Lady Jessica to flee into the desert where even more peril awaits. opportunities and encounters with the Fremen (led by a sneaky Javier Bardem).

Until the film ends abruptly and unsatisfactorily halfway through the events of Herbert’s novel, there is fun watching this particular Game of Thrones unfold, although perhaps more fun than it is. depth or meaning. To call this “Dune” a remarkably lucid work is to praise it with very little damnation. Perhaps reluctant to alienate the novices of the public, Villeneuve smoothed out many convolutions of the novel, to the probable benefit of understanding but to the detriment of certain rich and imaginative excesses. Herbert’s most memorable linguistic flights, like “gom jabbar” and “Kwisatz Haderach”, are spoken once, with a slight air of embarrassed obligation, and rarely mentioned again. A greater victim is the book’s layered interiority, its ability to turn unspoken perceptions and motives into drama; the writers have managed this material without mastering it.

The compromised version of Lynch was also stuck and more crowded with exposure. But he also had the courage of his demented convictions, as well as an intrepid engagement in feverish and pustular imagery that makes Villeneuve’s pristine cinema almost shy in comparison. It is not the first time that his profession seems to exist mainly for himself; it is the mark of a filmmaker more logistician than thinker, more technician than artist. As a visual and visceral experience, “Dune” is undeniably transporting. As a spectacle for the mind and the heart, it never quite leaves Earth.

And maybe that’s as it should be, at least at this early stage. Hopefully there will be more to see and much more to think about in “Dune: Part Two”, the completion of which will depend to some extent on the fortunes of that first film. Will “Dune” conjure enough coins – the spice of the Hollywood kingdom – to complete itself? I suspect it might, in part because I doubt that Villeneuve, a more reliable than interesting filmmaker, has the power in him to add to “Dune’s” memorable set of failures. Dust has long been its true cinematic habitat, and may it return to dust.

‘Dune: Part one’

Rated: PG-13, for sequences of strong violence, disturbing images and suggestive material

Duration of operation: 2 hours 35 minutes

Playing: Starts October 22 in general and on HBO Max

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