Dune’s Calculating Bene Gesserit Are a Most Precious Resource

Dune’s Calculating Bene Gesserit Are a Most Precious Resource
Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam subjecting Paul Atreides to the gom jabbar. (Screenshot: Warner Bros.)

Though Denis Villeneuve’s Dune focuses on Paul Atreides as he and most everyone around him dance around the obvious fact that he is the long-prophesied chosen one destined to bring an end to the war between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, when we first meet him, he’s a far cry from the legendary messiah king he’ll one day become. In Frank Herbert’s novel — and its various adaptations — Paul’s initially framed as a precocious youth whose relationship to his father Leto, duke of planet Arrakis, and his mother, Lady Jessica is what makes him notable in the eyes of those who don’t fully know him.

What those outside of Paul’s (Timothée Chalamet) immediate family don’t know about him — but is made clear to readers of the novel and audiences of Villeneuve and David Lynch’s respective films — is how he’s the end result of a years-long effort by the Bene Gesserit, a secretive order of bewitching women who orchestrated the creation of a powerful political figure — a Kwisatz Haderach, with powers able to bridge space and time — under their control. Unlike Lynch’s Dune, which spent a fair amount of time diving into the more fantastical elements of the franchise’s lore, Villeneuve’s film is markedly more restrained by comparison, particularly when it comes to its depiction of the Bene Gesserit and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson).

While Jessica loves her son deeply, as a member of the Bene Gesserit herself, she’s spent the bulk of her life acting on the organisation’s orders crafted to maintain a delicate grip on the minds of the galaxy’s key power players. But in key moments driven by her own determination and love for Leto, Jessica deviates from the Bene Gesserit’s plan for her to give birth to a daughter. What’s alluded to Villeneuve’s film, and explored more thoroughly throughout the Dune novels is how Jessica’s decision to raise Paul in the ways of the Bene Gesserit — teaching him how to sharpen the focus of his mind, and use the compelling Voice — was an affront to Bene Gesserit all on its own. Awe-inspiring as Dune’s sandworms and large-scale battle scenes are, the movie’s at its most fascinating when it’s focusing on how Jessica and Paul are fundamentally upending the Bene Gesserit’s well-laid plans for her to give birth to a daughter who would then one day give birth to the Kwisatz Haderach.

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Screenshot: Warner Bros.

When the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) arrives on the planet Caladan to meet Paul, her knowledge of his seemingly prophetic dreams is reason enough for her to suspect that he is the Kwisatz Haderach and, by extension, realise what Jessica’s done. Dune would not be a proper Dune adaptation without a spotlight on the moment when Mohaim displays a much more advanced used of the Voice on Paul before ordering him to slip his hand into an ominous box. The gom jabbar, a Bene Gesserit test designed to determine a person’s self-control, is Mohaim’s way of getting a sense of who Paul is as a person. But as the excruciating pain radiating from the box overtakes Paul, in both the novel and in Villeneuve’s Dune, there’s also a marked sadism to the gom jabbar that can be read in the moment as Mohaim exacting a bit of revenge on Paul and Jessica.

The mother and son’s emotional dynamic is a vital aspect of Dune’s larger story as Paul comes more into his power, and while Villeneuve’s film definitely explores that to a certain extent, it’s only so much because of the amount of time it instead spends focusing (often just staring into the distance) on Paul. Jessica is much more than her ties to the Bene Gesserit, but when we meet her, it’s at a time when her defiance of the order is coming to a head in ways that she can no longer fully conceal from them. The Kwisatz Haderach being born a generation early and without the Bene Gesserit knowing is the key advantage for Jessica and Paul that Villeneuve’s Dune touches upon as Mohaim moves to ensure that the Harkonnens will leave the pair unharmed when their house carries out a coup on Arrakis.

The Harkonnens’ eventual underhanded reneging on their word is one of Dune’s less-inspired narrative turns, but the Bene Gesserit’s attempt at preventing them from killing Paul is a detail worth paying attention to because of what it portends for the Dune follow-up that Warner Bros. just announced. As master manipulators with mental abilities bordering (and sometimes crossing over into) the supernatural, it’s hard to see Mohaim and the rest of the Bene Gesserit as gullible enough to take the Harkonnens at their word. Regardless of Mohaim’s feelings about Jessica’s duplicity, Paul likely being the Kwisatz Haderach gives her reason to come into his orbit in Herbert’s novels. Much as the Kwisatz Haderach is Dune’s answer to the One, the deeper lore about why a male Kwisatz Haderach poses such a threat to the group, and how Mohaim manoeuvres to still maintain influence over Paul is one of the more promising things about what’s to come.

Dune is now in theatres and streaming on HBO Max.

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