The positive reviews of DUNE are often very interesting but a little too euphoric. I loved the movie and didn’t see the time go by, but I was uncomfortable from the start. This discomfort did not ultimately come from any of the particular discrepancies between the film and the novel but from a more englobing impression of the tension, sometimes the dissonance, between the divergent methods underlying the two works.
Whereas Frank Herbert proceeds by complexity and amplification (at least in DUNE) Villeneuve proceeds by simplification and subtraction – this is his general method of pedagogical cinema.
(For another example of an application of Villeneuve’s pedagogical method, see below for links to my four-part review of BLADE RUNNER 2049)
In the case of DUNE there is a problem: the original novel has its own, and contrasting, pedagogy, i.e.a pedagogy of complexity. Villeneuve was therefore faced with the difficult task of reconciling the two strategies, and has achieved a masterful compromise.
A small example of de-complexification. In his visions of her Chani calls Paul « Usul » in the book, but calls him « Paul » in the film. Obviously Villeneuve felt that three names (Paul, Muad’dib, Usul) for a single character was too much. However, we miss out on Paul’s incomprehension in front of the strangeness of his visions, as he wonders if « Usul » is the name of an unknown planet.
I have commented more generally on Villeneuve’s pedagogical method, which proceeds by processes of simplification, subtraction, externalization, and clarification:
The guiding choice by Denis Villeneuve not to reproduce the interior monologues which occupy a large part of Frank Herbert’s book, and which make it artistically and intellectually complex, well beyond the complexity of the plot, goes hand in hand with this method of explanation. For example, in the scene of the ordeal of the gom jabar at the beginning of the film Paul’s own inner thoughts are transposed into his waiting mother Jessica’s external behavior.
This globally behaviorist approach to the narration, except for Paul’s visions, presents us with a Jessica often bordering on hysteria, which does not reflect her status as a senior sister in the Bene Gesserit sorority.
This same externalization applies to Paul, whose Mentat status could not be revealed or explored in this first part. His inner experience of awakening to himself after passing through the storm in the desert is therefore disappointingly externalized.
The advantage of this pedagogical method is to make the universe of DUNE and the story line accessible to a large number of people, but many of the underlying themes suffer from this reduction, in particular the theme of complexity.
As we have seen, this accessibility / complexity dichotomy is also found in the film’s treatment of the characters. Paul and Jessica are meta-humans, both by their genotype and their training. Villeneuve has chosen to humanize them to make them more accessible.
Villeneuve’s choice of a principal cast of familiar actors is a pedagogical and humanizing choice, which reinforces this accessibility. Timothée Chalamet is an actor of the humanly accessible type, he does not radiate with the disturbing strangeness of a multi-meta-human. Villeneuve has chosen to reassure rather than worry.
I had no problem with the supposed « coldness » of the film. DUNE is a cerebral book and Villeneuve is faithful to the novel, or at least in phase with it, by offering us a film that is both visually stunning and cerebrally driven. This is a visionary film first and foremost, and only secondarily a film of action. We can regret that with modern technologies he has not gone further on the path of cerebrality, preferring to sacrifice it partially for accessibility.
Note 1: « cerebral » does not necessarily mean abstractly intellectual.
Note 2: Cerebrality is the true Spice.
Note 3: In fiction as in life, it’s all a question of dosage.
A final remark: one must not take my analysis of Villeneuve’s method as being one-sidedly critical. One may recalled that when the movie AVENGERS ENDGAME came out, some American commentators hailed it as at last an « intelligent » Marvel movie, supposedly much more than an ordinary action movie. This was a ridiculous claim, but it expressed an aspiration, an expectation (unfortunately not fulfilled).
Villeneuve creates demanding, thoughtful, visionary films, and that’s already quite a lot.
My four-part review of BLADE RUNNER 2049: