Dune doesn’t feel like normal blockbuster fare for many reasons. There’s the unprecedented scale, with large spaceships drowning the frames they occupy. Hans Zimmer’s score is also otherworldly and chaotic, defying catchy or easily hummable melodies. It is strange and loud and big and in many ways befuddling. Frank Herbert’s novel is equally dense, and packed full of themes both relevant and polarizing. Denis Villeneuve’s film—part one of two confirmed features—follows suit. But there is one theme that is perhaps its most impressive and important, and it’s not one that stands out right away: the role of women in society.
The story follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), whose family moves to the desert planet of Arrakis to rule on assignment from the emperor. The planet is home to the most precious material in the known universe: spice mélange, which—when ingested—gives its taker superhuman abilities. House Atreides isn’t just sent to Arrakis for the hell of it, though. As Paul and his family come to suspect, they are walking into a dangerous political trap. The trap was partially concocted by the Bene Gesserit, a secretive order of women trained to maximize their mental and physical powers. The Bene Gesserit not only pull the strings, they also breed leaders and heroes. They are often called witches by those who fear and mistrust them.
In Dune, Paul Atreides is the result of the Bene Gesserit breeding program. His mother, Jessica—who is a a member of the Bene Gesserit order—was meant to give Paul’s father, Duke Leto II, a daughter. This daughter would go on to birth the Kwisatz Haderach, a male who was genetically designed to unlock memories of mankind. But Jessica betrayed orders and gave Leto a son instead. Paul is still likely the Kwisatz Haderach, only born a generation early. He is therefore a disruption in the Bene Gesserit grand plan, throwing their prescience out of whack. This puts the women on edge—something illustrated both beautifully and frighteningly in the film.
Villeneuve’s Dune brings the Bene Gesserit to life in a frightening, harrowing way. Their depiction is a key reason Dune: Part One stands out from the pack. They are its secret weapon, in a sense. Their appearance—namely, Charlotte Rampling’s haunting scenes as one of their leaders, the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam—lends the story a witchy edge. When we first see them, it is on Caladan at night. They arrive in a black, egg-like ship cast in shadows. They wear tall black hats and black sheaths. The soundtrack utilizes female voices that sound like whispers and later, when they depart, screams. The film feels like a horror film when they or the Reverend Mother show up.
The Bene Gesserit are also foundational to Paul’s story. Jessica chose to raise him in their way, so he has their power, which he practices throughout the film. When the Bene Gesserit come to Caladan, it is to challenge his training. Using the Gom Jabbar needle as a threat, the Reverend Mother test Paul’s response to pain using a metal box. He passes with flying colors, but the Reverend Mother is still not impressed. When Jessica asks why she went so hard on her son, the Reverend Mother replies: “You chose to train him in the way, in defiance of our rule. He wields our power. He had to be tested to the limits. So much potential wasted in a male.” She also notes that the Bene Gesserit have “other prospects” if he fails to become the Kwisatz Haderach.
This touch of destiny is common to any chosen one narrative, but the Bene Gesserit make Paul’s journey in Dune more complex. Because he knows in their ways, he is in touch with his femininity. He carries it with him, and it’s present in the film. We hear him speak in the Voice, a psychic communication the Bene Gesserit use. It sounds like a feminine hiss, even when he uses it. Paul is not just a man accepting his terrible destiny. He is heavily in tune with the feminine energies of the galaxy; both great and wicked.
Witches are coming to power again in other properties. Think Wanda and Agatha in the MCU’s WandaVision, or Sabrina, who’s headed to Riverdale. But the Bene Gesserit in Dune are something different. They make this seemingly male-centric narrative something more bewitching and complex. Paul carries their power—his mother’s power, in many ways more important than his duke father’s—with him. They also demonstrate the intricacies of the feminine; the power and the darkness. Dune is already heavy with theme and purpose. Its witchiness is just another asset.