Venice Film Fest: ‘Dune’ and ‘Spencer’ Premieres – But Are They Any Good?

It starts with a massive rumble, an earthshaking sonic blast that sounds like the “Zimmer Honk” played through some sort of cosmic coliseum’s P.A. It is a system. It is an announcement: Something massive is underway. An opening quote, “Dreams are messages from the deep,” suggests you’re about to go on a tour of the subconscious — or maybe that the brown acid is about to to kick in. Sands flow, gigantic machines bellow flames, electric-blue–eyed guerilla warriors spring from below and ambush a group of “spice harvesters,” stories of warring houses fighting as pawns in an emperor’s game are quickly relayed. “Who will our next oppressors be?” asks a narrator, who just happens to be, y’know, Zendaya. The ancient-ruins deco font on the title card will confirm that you are witnessing an epic. You have entered the Dune-iverse.

A $160 million bespoke blockbuster that’s been reluctantly tasked with saving the big-screen viewing experience, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is both a pumped-up version of a tentpole-starter and something completely different. A young man is thrust into becoming both a leader in a battle of good vs. evil and is, quite possibly, the Chosen One: you know this story even if you haven’t read a single paragraph of Frank Herbert’s 1965 inches-thick novel. It’s the white whale of [cue Party Down-era Martin Starr’s voice] “hard sci-fi” lit, and the source material’s relationship to screens both large and small has been mercurial at best. (There’s a fine line between capturing the poetry of taming the untameable and Kyle MacLachlan riding a sandworm.) Yet what the French-Canadian filmmaker has crafted is an odd, beautiful, batty and altogether singular pastiche of stylistic flourishes that turn a typical hero’s-journey narrative — the first half of one, anyway; more on that in a second — into a steroidal head trip. This is an old tale, but it’s been transformed into a state of the art delivery system for cinematic overload.

This last part can be read as a compliment, or as a cut, if you wish. Yet after Dune‘s Friday night premiere at the Venice Film Festival — a screening that was accompanied by the presence of A-list stars, a blitzkrieg of flashbulbs, crowds deafeningly chanting “Tim-ooo-THEEE!” and an eight-minute standing ovation — it was also a welcome return to something resembling an old-school, big-ticket communal fest experience. The 2021 edition had already delivered a handful of stop-the-presses movies since kicking into gear on Wednesday, notably Pedro Almodovar’s maternal melodrama Parallel Mothers and Jane Campion’s extraordinary The Power of the Dog, which features what’s arguably Benedict Cumberbatch’s best performance that doesn’t center around deductively solving crimes. It wasn’t until the morning press screenings and evening unveiling of Villeneuve’s sensory circuitbreaker, however, that you sensed that the event had really begun. It’s as if there was a sudden shift in voltage running throughout the Lido. Add in the fact that Spencer, a portrait of Princess Diana in the middle of an existential crisis (and that starred someone all too familiar with the suffocating power of fame), also premiered on the same day, and, for a moment, the Palazzo del Cinema felt like the center of the red-carpet universe.

But back to Dune. After that establishing prologue and a timeframe — Year 10191, though don’t ask us what calendar they’re using — we meet our emo-Hamlet of a hero: Paul Atreides, the twentysomething royal scion of House Atreides and the role that will turn Timothée Chalamet from the slim young hope of American actors to global posterboy. (Seriously, those “Tim-ooo-THEEE!” screams are only the tip of the future fandom iceberg.) His family, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), has been given control of Arakis, a planet best known for housing enormous sandworms that live beneath the surface, emerging only to engulf people and acreage in their couldn’t-be-more-Freudian maws; and “spice,” a natural resource with psychedelic properties and endless capitalistic possibilities. House Harkonnen has been the one who controls the export and harvesting of this gritty currency for decades. Only the Emperor, for reasons known only to himself, have evicted them and now granted the Atreides the responsibility of managing the galaxy’s primary industry. Paul, his father and Lady Jessica Ferguson (Rebecca Ferguson), along with a number of security and advisor heads and other Atreides-adjacent people, opened a shop on their new planet. There’s the sense that the flames of a  political rivalry is being stoked.

In terms of powerbrokering, storytelling chessplay and other aspects, there are two additional groups that play into this equation. The Bene Gesserit is a mysterious order of women that favors three-foot tall veiled caps and speaks of a future savior for the universe. Lady Jessica is a member; she’s also passed on some Gesserit traits and tricks to Paul, notably the ability to pitch your voice to a mind-controlling frequency. The order pulls a lot of strings behind the scenes, thanks to intimidation through faith and whisper campaigns aimed at the Emperor’s ears. The other is the Fremen, the Bedouin-like indigenous population that lives on Arakis and doesn’t take kindly to the off-world colonialists who continually come and go. Both groups have an interest in Paul, something about the possibility of a “mind powerful enough to bridge space and time, the past and the future.” As for the young man, he’s been having some strange dreams lately, and this woman keeps reappearing in them, either beckoning him or stabbing him, sometimes both, and the fact that she’s played by Zendaya suggests something significant is on the horizon ….

There’s more, so much more, from Stellan Skarsgard doing his best Brando-as-Kurtz portrayal as Baron Harkonnen, to Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa as respective fight trainers/mentors to Paul (the latter gets best-in-show for his character’s name: Duncan Idaho), to the body sheilds that glow and hum and turn hand-to-hand combat into a wash of blues and reds. After three hours, we exit at the novel’s halfway point; there’s still an entire war and messianic ascent to get to. A handful of recognizable elements can be glimpsed — there are bullfights and bagpipes in this universe as well — but for the most part, Villeneuve is throwing viewers into the otherworldly deep end here. Those not already well-versed in the saga’s ins and outs may find this initially confusing, although the convenient history lessons that Paul uses as study guides help fill in some gaps. In a way, the giant, multipart pop epics that precede this interpretation of Dune have helped prime audiences for such labyrinthine storylines involving dozens of players and endless pole-positioning, though even Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings had simpler loglines. Everyone wants to sit at the Iron Throne. Bad ring must be thrown into the volcano. With Dune, it’s something like “Right, so there’s this kid and one family attacks another and he who controls the spice controls the universe, but the thing about spice is ….”

And yet, sitting in the Sala Darsena, so much of that didn’t seem to matter. I mean, of course the story matters — an epic that’s merely eye-popping spectacle is an empty one, and the last thing you can say about Villeneuve’s Dune is that it’s empty. At times, it fills fit to burst, juggling so many strands of political commentary, ecological anxiety, religious parables, action-adventure romp and Shakespearean historical drama, not to mention the occasional “Meanwhile, over on Giedi Prime…” type of interludes. It’s that the filmmaker has made the visual sumptuousness, the sheer world-building and mix-and-match aesthetic of it all, such a key part of the storytelling that it’s easy for him to let the landscapes and the incredible scope sweep folks along from point to point. You may not quite know the Bene Gesserit’s tenets of faith, but you can tell by their look (imagine Italian widow meets Greek Orthodox priest) and their solemnity what part they play. The production design’s combination of Bauhaus architecture, H.R. Giger’s cyberfreakitiude, ancient Egyptian cultural artifacts and Heavy Metal magazine cover art presents a bizarro mix that suggests both centuries-old storytelling and a previously unimaginable future.

There were moments during the Venice screening — when a flying “thropter” first buzzes its dragonfly-like wings, when mercenaries silently descend from the skies, when “the voice” is used to disrupt someone’s actions, when a battle scene soundtracked by a Wagneresque Hans Zimmer score fills the frame with clashing armies — when you could sense a collective awe come over the crowd. The jaws dropped even though masks couldn’t hide it. It’s a very grand gesture of a movie yet also, ironically, an intimate one by dint of Villeneuve’s obsessiveness and the overall peculiarity of what’s onscreen. And it’s a combination that the movies, at least these types of movies, need in order to survive what’s starting to feel like too much carbon-copying in certain franchises and diminishing returns in others.

At the press conference, Villeneuve claimed that he wanted to make something that felt like a physical experience — something as immersive as possible. He’s done that. And not to get too bogged down into the theatrical-or-not question, but Dune definitely doubles as a reminder why such shared, overwhelming experiences need to be kept alive, yet another reason why its premiere at an in-person festival that’s keep things safe for its patrons strikes such a chord. Listen to the rumble. A message from the deep doesn’t have to be larger than life to be effective. However, this one requires that you get out of your living space and go into the dark with it.

There are dreams, and then there are biopics of dream lives. And within that latter category are subjective takes — “a fable from a true tragedy,” to quote Spencer — that turn dream lives into waking nightmares, that bend and twist things in the service of alternate, sometimes more penetrating looks at its subject past rises and falls. Chilean director Pablo Larrain has proven that you can make these types of films work with 2016’s Jackie, which follows first lady Jackie Onassis in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination. You wouldn’t exactly say he’s pulled a hat trick here, however. Though, as with his previous foray into the inner struggles of complicated women, he’s given an actor the opportunity to go beyond mimicry and craft a real, honest-to-god performance from the raw material of iconography.

Let’s cut to the chase: Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Princess Diana Spencer, as seen through the lens of a harrowing holiday weekend at the royal estate at Sandringham, is the best thing about this movie. With the possible exception of a surreal scene in which she gulps down pearls in her soup, it is likely the one thing that will be remembered from Spencer years from now. That, and her reading of the line “Now leave me, I wish to masturbate,” an immediate entry into the camp dialogue canon. Most of us do not need to be convinced that Stewart is one of the finest screen performers working today (we’d say “of her generation,” but why limit it), and stuck having to play the People’s Princess as a victim — of a marriage on the rocks, of stifling formal tradition, of cameras behind every bush and guards behind every corner and a palace in which “everyone can hear everything…even your thoughts” — she lifts things up every chance she gets.

The degree of difficulty is high here, especially when she also has to compete with wearing outfits now as famous as the woman who wore them, a framing that emphasizes the claustrophobia of Di’s situation, camerawork seemingly designed to mirror a disintegrating mindset and an emotional gamut that runs from sad to extremely depressed and sad. Not to mention a somewhat meta aspect to the affair, given Stewart’s own relationship to fame and the media.

So yes, praise the performance, and wonder why the movie that it’s in doesn’t quite measure up to what she’s doing. Part of it may be Stephen Knight’s script, which oddly feels like its presenting Spencer’s victimhood in a vacuum even when her story, especially coming on the heels of The Crown‘s past season, is well known to every man, woman, child and beast. Part of it may be Larrain, who’s an extraordinary filmmaker yet, as with his recent Stephen King adaptation Lisey’s Story, feels a little off his game here. Part of it may be that, even as we relitigate how famous women of the 1980s and 1990s were treated by the Celebrity Industrial Complex and deservedly feel shame over it, there doesn’t seem to be much insight to Diana’s particular case past reiterating the fact she was more or less held prisoner, and paid the price of pariahhood for trying to escape it. Stewart talked about how empowered she felt playing Diana and that she actually felt taller. during the film’s press conference, and you can see that onscreen as she tries to fill the void around her. As the awards-circuit buzz machine immediately went into effect — we did say Venice was the center of the red-carpet universe — it would be nice to see her get recognition. Everything else about Spencer feels as shaky as a candle in the wind.

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