Denis Villeneuve’s entire career has been a rehearsal for Dune
Last night I dreamed I went to Arrakis again . . .
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune was my film of the year. I normally try to avoid hyping up releases of this size but it was everything I had so desperately wanted it to be.
I turned thirty-three and my flatmates bought me the beautiful new Gollancz edition of the novel. I wanted to leap straight in but first there was my girlfriend’s present: tickets to a screening at the BFI IMAX. A few days later we took our seats before the biggest screen in the land and, after a couple of hours, emerged delirious and giddy. I read the corresponding part of the book, then we watched it again at the Rio in Dalston. I’ve finished the book and Sara has since devoured the whole thing. We can’t wait for the sequel.
So high did the Dune fever run in our household that we spent the lead-up to its release bingeing on the French-Canadian director’s filmography. Saz hadn’t seen Sicario, and neither of us had seen Enemy. Watching these within a few days of revisiting Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival made plain that the themes of determinism and control aren’t unique to his science-fiction features but have been the guiding obsession of his English language movies. (I can’t comment on his French stuff. Anyone seen Incendies?) Prisoners, which we skipped, holds the key to that entire corpus because that’s what his protagonists are: in thrall to needs, coercions, and imperatives that are psychological and institutional as much as they are moral and metaphysical. The predicaments of that good toy soldier Agent K and the temporally unmoored linguist Louise Banks make literal what had previously been metaphor.
Like I said, neither of us had read Frank Herbert’s novel — nor seen the disastrous Dino De Laurentiis production. I was excited because I thought the trailers looked very impressive; because I’d been led to believe that the source material deserved better than its treatments to date on both film and television; because, with reservations, I was a fan of Villeneuve’s work. Watching several of his films over a week brought him into focus. He’s an oftentimes brilliant director whose pursuit of his themes can lead him down dismal and unproductive paths.
His record with actors is instructive. Why didn’t we include Prisoners in our program? Because I couldn’t stand sitting through Hugh Jackman’s monotonous overacting again. There was nothing surprising about that neurotic, paranoid, and humourless man’s readiness for violence. He’s a prisoner of his own bad character, and the film’s got us shackled to this tedious psychopath. Villeneuve’s other protagonists are determined, even if grimly, to resist or at least revise the fates that have been laid out for them, just as they fight against succumbing to the dread and anomie that surrounds them. But ultimately the grimness wins. We’ve seen Amy Adams, Ryan Gosling, and Emily Blunt look livelier, on much looser form, in their other films. Under Villeneuve their natural spark is subdued. The lead performances are tightly calibrated, flush with the directorial vision. Gosling performed such services for Nicholas Winding-Refn to diminishing returns, but he’s excellent as K. What a heroically self-effacing performance, what freedom he finds within Villeneuve’s tight tonal straitjacket.
Perhaps predictably, his leads tend to have the least fun while he allows some variety to orbit the centre, permitting wily and subversive artists to make their mark: Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Josh Brolin. The latter-day Harrison Ford, too. The greatest is probably Benicio del Toro, whose dark and enigmatic shadow plunges all of Sicario into fear and doubt. The somewhat overrated Arrival is brightened by no such sparks. Jared Leto in Blade Runner 2049, on the other hand, delivers an absolutely preposterous performance that gives the game away: the movie is a fairy tale, its villain essentially an evil sorcerer.
My good friend George was no fan of the film, finding nothing special in its invocations of free will and identity; these themes, he argued, inhered in the genre and in the materials that Villeneuve was given. But I insist that K is an interesting example because he would trade one preprogramed path for another. The cop would be the chosen one — surely it’s a massive joke that the inexpressive and uncharismatic K should fancy himself a leader.
Also I just love this movie, so at the risk of special pleading, let’s place it in a family line-up.
In Enemy a man becomes obsessed by the discovery of his exact double and what it reveals about the shape of his own life. It’s probably his richest film, and Gyllenhaal towers twice above it all in his dual performance. In Sicario FBI Agent Kate Macer is trapped in the moral labyrinth of the War on Drugs: a world of Potemkin tit-for-tat, in which atrocity is routinized according to jurisdiction and bureaucratic deniability. In Arrival, on the other hand, Doctor Banks becomes unstuck in time — and functionally omniscient. Here’s where Villeneuve runs into trouble.
Even on a second viewing Arrival failed to satisfy. A pre-determined narrative that is legible to its own constituents to bound to lack friction, and the climax was even less fraught than I’d remembered. Having sussed the alien language in all its simultaneity of meaning, all Louise has to do is find a quiet space to think, scrunch up her face, and pre-remember her encounter with the Chinese general. The day is saved by ontological paradox, and the whole affair is as weightless as the translation montage at its centre (this could have been one of the all-time great process features, but for that failure of nerve). Kurt Vonnegut saw how tragicomic this sort of business would have to be, and Slaughterhouse Five makes Arrival look not only humourless but unserious.
What will become of humanity once everyone’s read her book, making Billy Pilgrims of us all? Now there’s a funny thought.
A final thought on Villeneuve and character, by way of a speculative comparison. For a while I’ve reckoned that he would be the perfect director for a J.G. Ballard adaptation. Like I said, the sci-fi movies made literal the metaphorical and psychological: the gutted, broken earth of Blade Runner 2049 was the apotheosis of all his previous moral wastelands. Dave Bautista eking out some sort of life out there in that scorch — doubtless one of billions doing so — is like something out of the early novels. It’s also a fuller picture of that barren world than Ridley Scott chose to give us. It makes me want to see Villeneuve adapt The Drought (also titled The Burning World).
Ballard’s novel is a horrifying desert banquet of images, a gift to the filmmaker. But other than, I suppose, David Cronenberg, no director has taken the proper approach to Ballard’s characters. That is to say, Ballard doesn’t have any. They’re names on the page, job titles, sketches of physical attributes. In his scrambled anti-novel The Atrocity Exhibition, to drive the point home, he has the main character change name in every chapter: Talbert, Traven, Travis, Talbot, etc. This makes sense; what does all the fussy business of personality and individuality amount to in the face of apocalyptic breakdown?
Ben Wheatley in High Rise was too English for my taste — that is, too Hogarthian. The whole thing was a collective Rake’s Progress, as in a slideshow of carnage, bustling with red-faced, splenetic grotesques. (Now that I think about it, it’s not a world away from The Favourite’s totally naff class war as fancy dress shtick.) The spatiality of the building — how all these localities and events ultimately hung together — felt weakly imagined. And the characters, while appropriately shallow, bristled too brightly in their obnoxious costumes.
Villeneuve, I think, has the visual sensibility to convey the omnipresent sense of profound upheaval, of the worst having already come to pass — the breath-choking horror so painfully missing from Interstellar. But thinking about it now, any faithfully imagined global dustbowl would be so distressing to watch that it would have desiccated Nolan’s weepie finale (something about us evacuating the uninhabitable earth faster than the speed of love — I think?). Weirdly, I found the entirely absent future apocalypse of Tenet, along with the attendant notion of mass temporal evacuation, much more disquieting. As I plan to argue in another essay on that underrated film, I think abandoning rounded character has been a good move for Nolan in his films since Interstellar, and I wonder whether he wouldn’t be a good fit for Ballard now.
Aside from what I see as Arrival’s failure of emphasis (I put it to the reader that, for all its deep pathos, Louise’s serene submission to the brief span of her daughter’s life must be one of the least interesting implications to arise from the Heptapod epiphany), Villeneuve refuses to force his protagonists unduly into the round. Even that movie mainly gets it right: just look at Forest Whitaker, so often a delicious ham but here, as for David Fincher, on restrained and unsentimental form. This is the sort of tone you’d want for a Ballard adaptation.
Let me put it another way.
The trailer for Dune contained one more gag than the entirety of Villeneuve’s filmography to date. This, I could tell, was going to be a good, old fashioned space opera. How would he handle a cast of such colourful characters?
Very, very well, as it turned out.
This was, without question, a Denis Villeneuve movie. Beautiful to behold and horrifying to contemplate. A universe of infinite wonder and cruelty. How many of his future themes and obsessions did the director find in his boyhood reading?
In an imagination-defyingly distant future, the imperial spectacle of order conceals profound moral chaos. The Emperor rules supreme over countless worlds, his writ enforced by the brutality of the Sardaukar — his ferocious Janissaries. But mere violence wouldn’t suffice to solder together so sprawling and complex an imperium; this unseen, all-seeing potentate must articulate his will through a Byzantine subsidiarity of power. This is as much a fractious feudal hierarchy as it is a state-capitalist bureaucracy. Business interests and the sacerdotal authorities hold at least as much of the Emperor’s attention as the hereditary leaders of the great houses.
Duke Leto Atreides, a nobleman of clearly uncommon benevolence and rectitude, finds himself athwart this sinister nexus. Tasked by the Emperor with the custodianship of the arid world Arrakis, he is placed in charge of the universe’s supply of Melange: the indigenous desert “spice” that binds the starflung human race together. Only under the mind-altering influence of Melange can the pilots of the Space Guild navigate the great voids between worlds. Until this humiliating change of guard, the most important and lucrative assignment in the empire had been the charge of the Harkonnen, the brutish and implacable rivals of House Atreides. In the shadows Leto’s foes fulminate against his rise, and in fell colloquies they plot his undoing.
Like I said: I watched the film, read the book, watched the film again. In my imagination Villeneuve doesn’t merely illustrate Herbert but precedes him. Herbert’s dramatis personae has been staffed by Villeneuve, whose cast provide the likenesses that I carry into my reading. Herbert’s locations were furnished by the filmmaker, who also ran with the novelist’s various notions and conceits and rendered them into plausible and beautiful tech.
As a latecomer to this narrative and its constituents, I feel little compunction in declaring that Villeneuve the filmmaker outclasses Herbert the novelist. It may have supplied the inspiration, but the novel’s prose can’t compete with the film’s titanic images. In fact, Villeneuve’s visual imagination seems most impassioned by bits of business found on the periphery of Herbert’s rather predictable dramatic formulae. Without unduly dragging the beloved author, his sole engines of storytelling are dialogue and a pretty crude rendering of his characters’ thoughts and recollections — dialogue by other means. Even when he has his characters talking and reflecting in the great perilous outdoors of Arrakis he still stages and blocks the action like a chamber piece; he never attempts the panoramas of a Wells or a Tolkien, and his action set pieces are hardly models of clarity.
Of course Villeneuve has always been an attentive visual stylist. Even a seemingly casual shot of Emily Blunt drinking in a bar in Sicario is lit with painstaking craftsmanship. But even the grand vistas of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 didn’t prepare me for the magniloquent stylishness on display here. From Chani’s opening narration, his compositions are both dreamy and celestial. His spacecraft move with a stately languor that verges on absolute stillness; there’s almost something woozy about them which put me in mind of Fantastic Planet. Gargantuan and solitary these vast structures hover so slowly through space, which seems the more incomprehensibly vast for being so little glimpsed. This feels right, having read the book now: the strife of Atreides and Harkonnen are vicissitudes of the desert; blood and sand. Spacefaring is the preserve of the very select few — this Guild I still know so little about.
Because I could go on about this film from here until the release of its sequel, two images must suffice to encapsulate this rhapsody. Two scenes which struck me already on a first viewing, but which I can appreciate even more deeply after reading the book. Two exhibitions of Villeneuve’s advance on his source material.
The Herald of the Change. What a spectacular visual invention, that strange precession — beyond anything that Herbert even attempts in imagining his world. (Unless I’m being unfair, and the later novels widen their narrative scope?) And how unexpectedly perfect to cast Benjamin Clementine as the Herald — I see Villeneuve is a man of culture. The whole scene — giving us the formal handover of power over Arrakis to the Duke — is twice striking. On the first viewing you barely know where to focus your attention, feel torn away as Villeneuve cuts between multifarious points of interest.
The Herald and members of the court in their outrageous costumes and the sheer fact of the elaborate ritual (carted across the universe and carried out at no small cost, as Thufir informs us) hint at a larger world of unimaginable opulence, ceremony, and hierarchy. Already this early scene had me yearning for the sequel. On the second viewing I was able to appreciate how these characters and the Bene Geserit come from a matrix of design thrillingly differentiated from the array that Villeneuve unveils throughout the rest of the narrative. The Atreides of Caladan, posing heroically in late Victorian naval jackets by the ocean light of grey mornings. The Harkonnen, bursting at the seams with malice while cavorting with abomination. The desert realm of the Fremen, who see whole worlds in a grain of sand — a precondition of surviving their planet’s ceaseless scorch. In Villeneuve’s rendering, Herbert’s universe will provide no shortage of sights and sensations.
Probably the most breath-taking of his compositions is the Fall of Duke Leto. Betrayed by a trusted servant, defeated by his ancestral foe, he’s drugged and stripped naked and sprawled in humiliating display in his banquet chamber. Herbert keeps his Duke fully clothed and apprised of his family’s safe escape; he dies a happy man. Villeneuve not only strips Leto of his regal uniform but also of all hope, and a single teardrop slides down his cheek as Baron Vladimir crows in vindictive triumph. But Villeneuve’s Duke, as played by Oscar Isaac, is not only a devoted father and partner but also the avatar of an ancient order — one that will be brought crashing down with him.
For this pivotal and monumental scene, Villeneuve and his team draw on the austere lighting, rectilinear compositions, and nude musculature of French neoclassical painting. The greatest representative of this tradition was Jacques-Louis David, whose depictions of mythological and ancient historical scenes swept away the anecdotal platitudinising of Rococo parlour art and, in so doing, captured the revolutionary ferment of the 1780s. Paintings like his Oath of the Horatii and The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons monumentalise the mythic birth of a new civic and nationalist esprit as it rises to sweep away the venality and corruption of the despised old order. Availing himself of this visual vocabulary, Villeneuve gives Leto’s fall the grandeur befitting not only the dignity of House Atreides, but also the sheer scale of the universe he has husbanded into being. Out of such august brickwork he builds his homage to the book he has loved since his youth.
Like I said: we can’t wait for the sequel.