A science fiction epic and a whimsical take on a literary magazine
Dune and The French Dispatch
By Marc Glassman
Denis Villeneuve, dir. & co-script w/Eric Roth & Jon Spaihts
Starring: Timothée Chalamet (Paul), Rebecca Ferguson (Lady Jessica), Oscar Isaac (Duke Leo Atreides), Josh Brolin (Gurney Halleck), Stellan Skarsgard (Baron Vladimir Harkonnen), Zendaya (Chani), Chang Chen (Dr. Yueh), Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Dr. Liet-Kynes), Charlotte Rampling (Gaius Helen Mohiam), Jason Momoa (Duncan Idaho), Javier Bardem (Stilgar)
One of the true literary science fiction epics, Frank Herbert’s Dune has long been viewed as unfilmable by many of its adherents, especially after David Lynch’s disastrous adaptation nearly 40 years ago which followed in the wake of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to create a 14-hour version back in the ‘70s. With all of the advances in visual and aural technology as well as the stunning successes of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, though, it was only a matter of time before someone, backed with a stunning budget, tried it again. Kudos to Canada’s own Denis Villeneuve, who has outdone Lynch and Jodorowsky with this brilliant new version of Dune.
Villeneuve and his team have achieved the spectacular. This is a brilliantly realized vision of Herbert’s future, filled with sensational battles, stunningly realized archetypical characters, glorious and terrifying landscapes and mysterious powerful forces that defy logical understanding. To make visible some of the seemingly inexplicable elements in Herbert’s work is nearly impossible but Villeneuve has done it by depicting scenes, which seem to be fantastic, as odd but real–without explanations. Paul’s ability to grab a deadly insect at the last second before it would attack or deal with a deadly test from the sorceress cult, Bene Gesserit, isn’t fully clarified nor does it need to be. Villeneuve make such situations work, in part, because he keeps Dune moving at a brisk pace, not allowing viewers much time to contemplate every event as it unfolds.
The compelling action that will immerse the audience in the film, is mainly set on the planet Arrakis, aka Dune. It’s the locale for an annihilating war between two factions in a sphinxlike empire, the fascistic Harkonnen warrior family and a humanistic but similarly imperial set of planetary rulers, led by Duke Leo Atreides (Oscar Isaac). When the emperor orders the Harkonnens off Dune and gives the planet, with its psychotropic and hugely expensive mineral “spice,” to the Atreides family, it’s clear that a war will take place. Before a devastating attacks occurs, we get to know Duke Leo Atreides—a devoted lover of his consort, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who he knows has the secret powers of a sorceress, and a warm father to their son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet). They both believe in the future success of Paul, who is being mentored by Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa). But it’s only Jessica who knows that Paul could be “the one,” who could take over the Empire, but only after mastering an immense understanding of it.
After betrayal, death and a dazzling battle scene, Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica, eventually end up hiding on the desert planet, not in an imperial compound. There hasn’t been as great an evocation of a desert in any film since Lawrence of Arabia. And like David Lean’s epic, the film is actually interested in the philosophy of the people inhabiting the land. In its own way, Villeneuve’s Dune is the first contemporary epic to try to come to grips with a culture that might bear some resemblance to a futuristic Arab one. When Paul and Lady Jessica meet the Fremen, Dune’s Indigenous people, they are introduced to a way of life that has worked for centuries on the planet. The Fremen are used to the immense desert and terrifying sandworms that circle the planet. Unlike other members of the warring imperial families, Paul is more interested in the Fremen than the Spice, which either the Harkonnen or the Atreides must extract in order to power the empire’s economy.
Through prophetic dreams, Paul has already met the Indigenous woman he will love, Chani (Zendaya). But we’ll see more of that in part two. That’s right: at two hours and thirty minutes, we will only have seen part one of Dune. That’s one way to deal with the novel’s complexity: make it five hours long.
But Dune part one stands by itself as an epic piece of filmmaking. It’s far more than a standard sci-fi or fantasy thriller. Villeneuve is superb at setting up scenes and moving them dynamically, whether in dialogue or action mode. His films are extraordinarily beautiful whether he’s using Roger Deakins (Sicario, Blade Runner 2049, Prisoners), Bradford Young (Arrival) or, in this case, Grieg Fraser. As any Canadian film enthusiast will know, Villeneuve has been great with actors in much lower budget films like Incendies and Polytechnique and clearly works well with stars as well as performers with less ego—and agents. As a director, he’s ready for Dune part two and other challenging projects in the years to come.
Is Dune as great as The Empire Strikes Back or Peter Jackson’s first Lord of the Rings film? Let’s give it five years and the arrival of Dune Part Two, but I’m willing to bet this film will be seen as one of the finest cinematic epics—and the start of a great series.
The French Dispatch
Full title: The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
Wes Anderson, director & co-script w/Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman & Hugo Guinness
Featuring: Bill Murray (Arthur Howitzer, Jr.) Owen Wilson (Herbsaint Sazerac), Elisabeth Moss (Alumna), Jason Schwartzman (Hermes Jones), Anjelica Huston (Narrator), Jarvis Cocker (Tip-Top)
In J.K.L. Berensen’s story The Concrete Masterpiece:
Tilda Swinton (J.K.L. Berensen), Benicio del Toro (Moses Rosenthaler), Adrien Brody (Julien Cadazio), Léa Seydoux (Simone), Lois Smith (“Maw” Clampette), Henry Winkler (Uncle Joe Cadazio), Bob Balaban (Uncle Nick Cadazio)
In Lucinda Krementz’ story Revisions to a Manifesto:
Frances McDormand (Lucinda Krementz), Timothée Chalamet (Zeffirelli), Lyna Khoudri (Juliette), Christoph Waltz (Paul Duval)
In Roebuck Wright’s story The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner:
Jeffrey Wright (Roebuck Wright), Mathieu Amalric (The Commissaire), Stephen Park (Lt. Nescaffier), Liev Schreiber (Talk Show Host), Edward Norton (The Chauffeur), Willem Dafoe (Albert the Abacus), Saoirse Ronan (Principal Showgirl)
Wes Anderson is a true auteur, a director and writer whose wry and witty point-of-view pervades all of his films. Quite frankly, you either love him or hate him. Luckily for Anderson, most critics take his side even in his quirkiest of endeavours and he attracts enough of an audience, so his films continue to get financed. Perhaps it’s because I’m married to someone who doesn’t find his films remotely amusing and dislikes the way he directs his actors that I’m acutely aware that this review may not persuade many Classical listeners and readers to try him out. But here’s hoping! Surely there are some Wes Anderson fence-sitters out there. And even my partner loves the New Yorker, the magazine that inspired the film.
To me, The French Dispatch (of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, to give the full title) is a sophisticated comedy and a wonderful homage to the New Yorker. I suppose it’s fair to say that the New Yorker isn’t a magazine for everyone, but its subscription base is five times that of The Atlantic and Harper’s, so it is truly popular amongst cultured readers. Over its long history, the New Yorker has built up an enviable reputation for cultivating journalists, turning them into superb word-smiths who can write with discipline and nuance on an extremely wide set of categories ranging from theatre and civic affairs to international politics and sport to science and food. In crafting The French Dispatch, Anderson has partially replicated the kind of stories one might read in the New Yorker but with an action-filled absurdist flair that makes it truly a film, not an overly fussy extrapolation of what works on a page.
Anderson sets the story in Ennui-sur-Blaisé (Boredom on indifference), France, a medium-sized town, where a rich American editor, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. has set up an office, an outpost for a Sunday supplement magazine, designed to be inserted into the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. (Nerdy note: New York magazine started out as a supplement to the New York Herald-Tribune, but the New Yorker was always independent.) Howitzer, who is modeled on the New Yorker’s legendary founding editor Harold Ross, is an irascible phlegmatic type, with an unflappable ego and an iron belief in his writers. Bill Murray is perfect in the role and he’s just one of the many members of Anderson’s stock company of performers to appear in the film. They include Tilda Swinton, giving a pitch-perfect performance of a journalist in the art set; Frances McDormand, as a cool, self-possessed journalist caught in the French May 1968 student revolution; Owen Wilson as a “bicycle journalist” offering short impressions of cityscapes; Adrien Brody as a wily arrogant art dealer; and Anjelica Huston as the precise, slightly ironic, narrator. They’re joined by such notables as Benicio del Toro as a deranged artist, Léa Seydoux as his muse and guard, Timothée Chalamet as a revolutionary French student leader and Timothée Chalamet and Jeffrey Wright, as a brilliant journalist.
Anderson has left himself open to criticism by using the anthology format. Whenever you put multiple stories together, you’re just asking for criticism. Inevitably, a pecking order is established with one tale rising to the top. The winner, for me, is Roebuck Wright’s story “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” which is cleverly set up as a TV interview between a host played by Liev Schreiber and the author (who is played by Jeffrey Wright). The story, which is interrupted several times, plunges us into a convoluted tale of haute cuisine, the stylish life of Parisians and a kidnapping yarn. Adding to the complex nature of the tale is the use in animation of a style resembling the great French graphic adventure tales of Tin Tin. But others may opt for the story of a mad artist who paints an immovable fresco, “The Concrete Masterpiece” or the very funny evocation of the May ’68 revolt, “Revisions to a Manifesto.” To my mind, they’re all fine but it’s likely that a common criticism will be that the film is uneven due to the three tales.
All I know is that I endorse The French Dispatch and will try to persuade my partner, a lover of the New Yorker, to at least watch it. Who knows? Maybe this will be the Wes Anderson film that makes her change her mind.