Saturday, May 18, 2024

In Praise of Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen: The Sadomasochistic Rogue of House Harkonnen

Austin Butler is at his best when he’s playing freaks.

Some actors approach their characters with neat, tactful planning, like a surgeon measuring the incision on the patient’s body after preparation for the procedure. Others believe in the chaos theory. It’s like the body is there and they jab it with a knife in calculated but asymmetrical cuts and grazes.

Butler belongs to the latter group. He brings out an incomprehensible– albeit playful- energy to characters he plays and leaves audiences questioning what they just saw. Wasn’t Elvis in Baz Luhrmann’s titular movie a freak with all those erotic, possessed moves on stage, and these seizure-like dances, and this wild unnerving energy? This thirty-something actor has turned Elvis into a benign creature, that bizarrely hit closer to home than more “faithful” Elvis adaptations in earlier –or later- works. It was more like Pablo Larraín’s interpretation of Diana in Spencer and how he directed Kristen Stewart –the last person to come to mind when the image of Princess Diana is evoked- to play the spirit of the dashing but haunted Princess of Wales.

Wasn’t Tex Watson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a freak? With that shaky tone, those glistening eyes, these spit-heavy rants and mad gestures?

And isn’t Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen a freak?

It wasn’t until he started drooling during the Harkonnen arena fight scene, that I realized, well, that Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen differed a bit from the one in the book. That was because Butler, as usual, grabbed him from whatever shelf he was placed on and brought him to his battlefield. In this fight scene, Feyd enjoyed being two inches away from death. He reveled in the hatred the Atreides slave showed him and laughed in the face of a knife so close to his throat. He hugged the dead man kindly like a mother and waited until he saw the light fade from his eyes. If that’s not a masterful angle to playing out a character, then what is?

And who is Denis Villeneuve’s Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen?

Described as an insane, seductive, rockstar-like psychopath who relishes in torturing and killing people, the Harkonnen could’ve gone down the sadistic, brutal, and unstoppable villain road. Austin could’ve made it one-dimensional and boring, and probably (or maybe not) people would have cheered him on for his performance. The narrative would focus on how the sweet, docile Austin who was always kind, warm, and attentive, had such stored sinister energy inside him as an actor.

But Butler, under the masterful direction of modern-day sci-fi genius Villeneuve, created a modern monster, one that flips sexuality as much as he flips power. One that drools like a madman while relishing the pleasure of killing his Atreides opponent in the arena. One who forces his brother to kiss his foot, and kneels in front of Lady Margot, the Bene Gesserit, surrendering fully to her power and craving for her to hurt him. But when his creepy uncle, Baron Harkonnen, kisses him out of –supposedly- a habitual endearment gesture to his pet, Feyd snaps and grabs his Uncle’s face, landing a deadlier, spiteful kiss on the older man’s lips.

In approximately 30 minutes of screentime, Butler takes audiences on a rollercoaster ride of Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen’s emotions, from sudden dismissal of his sexual existence as he first emerges like a slimy alien reminiscent of a zygote still forming in the womb, to his sexually dominant behavior with his slaves, then his complete submission to Lady Margot Fenring’s sexual maturity and omnipresent personality. Bloodthirsty, like his vampiric BDSM-clad slaves, this creature aches to be conquered sexually. The Baron forcefully subdued him in his dark past and thus relished forcing others to bow to him and submit to his command. He secretly wished he was hurt, not through force but kind coercion, and Lady Margot tapped into those latent desires like the well-trained Bene Gesserit she was.

The moment he appeared on screen I remembered the animal-human hybrid in Splice. For this role, Butler studied sharks, and in that arena scene, his eyes turned pitch black with a dumbfounded evil look. He resembled one of those killing soldiers, born and bred to kill. In other scenes, Butler, however, subtly brought out other layers of the character.

Feyd is a character born into savagery, the only form of love he knew in House Harkonnen was the love of fear and the fight. To live, he had to be afraid and live with fear, so he grew into a more slimy, sexual, sleazier version of his Uncle. The Baron, however, wanted perfection, so despite molding him into a version that slightly resembled him in looks and gusto, he also paid attention to shaping his body as he wanted it to be; the epitome of perfection. It was clear that The Baron’s intentions in doing so were far from sincere.

As morbid as this part of the storytelling was, there was no shock value or unnecessary scenes. Still, it was evident with every move, the crooked voice and the sadistic relishing of seeing his Uncle in pain or humiliated, the way his brain was fried with lust and arousal after the sight of people murdered or suffering.

Feyd was no different than the slaves he fought, bound to repeat a cycle of violence over and over under the lustful eyes of his uncle and thousands of bloodthirsty onlookers. To feel the burden of the character through the actor’s body language and his liberation from that weight as he watches the Baron die, to feel his lust, his sudden weakness and obedience like a marionette in front of a woman, and his arousal at Paul Atreides using the Voice. Some actors transmit to the audience how a character must have felt and Butler is one of those versatile elite.

Even though Dune: Part Two was epic and magnanimous, outstanding performances were scarce. There were also many points to comment on in terms of anti-colonialism, orientalism, and their sneaky anti-White savior masked as pro-White savior narrative. As Chani, Zendaya shines as an Indigenous woman, the only non-believer among the Fremen worshippers in the religious myth of Lisan al Gaib and Mahdi that Paul embodies. Rebecca Ferguson was simply a beautiful face, and the costumes were Arab and Islamic inspired as well as multiple references to the modesty of nuns when it came to the Bene Gesserit. 

But it was the reptilian Feyd-Rautha who caught my attention and piqued my interest the most. Until he met his demise at the hands of an opponent who unrightfully gave himself a heroic narrative, only to steal someone else’s land and culture.

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