DUNA PEDAGOGICA: notes on Villeneuve’s NEO-DUNE

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:

BLADE RUNNER 2049 AND ARRIVAL: a pedagogical cinema

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:

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6 commentaires pour DUNA PEDAGOGICA: notes on Villeneuve’s NEO-DUNE

  1. bormgans dit :

    Interesting take, thanks. I actually haven’t seen any other Villeneuves, so I can’t comment on his overall style, but I guess films like this – based on books – have a tendency to explain things to non-readers, and it’s understandable – especially for the medium of the Hollywood film – that the focus is on the plot/story, and not on other particulars of the book.

    It will be interesting to see how part 2 will turn out, and if Messiah will get a film too – as Villeneuve apparently wants. Before that, it will be hard to truly judge this – so far, all things considered, I think it’s overrated, even though I liked it. We are also on the same page about Jessica, and you are right about Paul too – I hadn’t even considered he got the same treatment.

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    • terenceblake dit :

      I highly recommend ARRIVAL, and BLADE RUNNER 2049 is pretty good too. I don’t think that the flattening of levels of complexity is absolutely necessary for success, as INCEPTION and TENET have demonstrated.

      In DUNE the focus is on the characters ability to decode complex situations and their having complex perceptions, so removing the inner dialogue is a big simplification that cannot fully be compensated by transposing it into behaviourist terms. For this reason I think that BOOK OF THE NEW SUN would make for a good series of films, but the loss would be considerable.

      I too am looking forward to Part 2, and the action takes on momentum and prominence so Villeneuve’s method should be more successful there. Iv think that in DUNE MESSIAH the inner dialogue plays a lesser role, so as to maintain key plot mysteries, and so should be even more affine to the Villeneuve treatment.

      Still it was my favourite film for this year, just as TENET was for last year.

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      • bormgans dit :

        I didn’t like the Chiang story Arrival was based upon, because the philosophical/linguistic underpinnings didn’t convince me. Maybe I should give the movie a shot and see how they differ.

        You are right complexity is not necessarily an issue for the box office, but Nolan has made it his trademark, from the very start of his carreer with Memento, so I guess if there is one director who can sell such things in Hollywood it is him. People going in know they will not ‘get’ the movie, but still get plenty of cool action & awesome shots. It’s also set in a time and place the audience understands, in that respect it is different from full blown scifi on a different planet, with heaps of backstory.

        I don’t watch many films, but Tenet was my favorite one last year too, as is Dune this year. (I have the feeling Don’t Look Up might be good too, but I don’t think I will see it before the end of the year.)

        As for BOTNS: I don’t really understand what you want to say. Do you think BOTNS would be suited for a series because it would be fairly easily translated into on screen behavior? Anyhow, I think that as a series it could be great indeed, but I don’t think it could be made in today’s political climate, at least, not without doing it fully justice. It would also lose a lot of how the book works as a reading experience – it would be hard to keep up the mystery of certain locations and characters – we would recognize the keep as a derilict space ship, or Jonas as a cyborg/robot, etc. It would be very hard for a director to get that balance right I think. But I would love see somebody try.

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  2. terenceblake dit :

    Like you, I think that BOTNS would make a great film series even when told as a straightforward adventure, but it would lose the complex interplay of perspectives (Severian’s naiveté and ignorance relative to the reader, his sophisticated manipulations and omissions, the constant undermining of assumptions and impressions). This is another visionary and cerebral story, so ideal for a Villeneuvian cinema.

    I agree that Nolan makes it easier on himself in some ways because he reduces the need for world-building to a minimum so as to concentrate on the twists, loops, pincers and paradoxes of thought. All of this is transposed into a visual presentation, and so materialised.

    Cinema may seem to require such visualisation and materialisation, but this is not the whole story. The audio can add other layers, undermining instead of just underlining, diverging instead of converging. For all its faults, David Lynch’s DUNE, with its voice over inner monologues, was able to maintain a certain type of complexity that Villeneuve had to sacrifice. Villeneuve’s soundtrack was of the convergent type, and dissonance was conveyed by visual means (e.g. cutting back and forth between Paul and Jessica in the gom jabbar sequence).

    As for ARRIVAL, I do not know what to recommend in your case. I read the source novella, Story of Your Life, first, and was moved by it. The problem with stories based on linguistic relativity is that translated into a real world narrative they can have twists that seem like magic – and it is perhaps this that you didn’t like. In the novella Ted Chiang walks a fine line, but succeeds in avoiding the fall into magic. In the film there is a more « magical » aspect of seeing the future, but I think the film holds up well.

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    • bormgans dit :

      I saw the movie a few weeks ago, sadly wasn’t convinced by it, the linguistic indeed is simply reduced to magic. I did like the acting, the atmosphere and the visuals however, and I guess that’s the most important thing for a movie. At the same time, I think the movie suffered from its own weight. Or, « why so serious? » as Nolan would have it.

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  3. dmf dit :

    Walking away from commanding dilemmas that demand an answer may be the challenge posed by the kind of science fiction from which I learned to those specialists who see nothing wrong in trapping their subjects in unilaterally imposed thought-situations. I thus read and relay Le Guin’s short story as dramatizing the difference between the rarefied, fictive world of thought experiments that create a new generative perspective, and the impoverished, mutilated thought-situations of discursive analytical fictions.


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