The Films of Denis Villeneuve: TIFF 2021’s Ebert Director Winner

We look back on the Canuck's career as we look forward to Dune

Is it time to crown Denis Villeneuve as Canada’s Spielberg? It’s safe to say that this year’s TIFF Ebert Director Award winner is officially Canada’s top director. Denis Villeneuve has catapulted himself to a level of Hollywood filmmaking with a path that’s unmatched by Canadian filmmakers. Although James Cameron crowned himself with blockbusters like Titanic, The Terminator, and Avatar, he didn’t come up through the system in the way that Villeneuve did.

The filmmaker from Gentilly, Quebec honed his chops on art house pics and indies. Like many Canadians, he scored one of his first credits through the National Film Board and then dabbled in eccentric art films. His early work, great as it is, hardly anticipates the massive Hollywood budgets of his recent work. What’s so exciting about Villeneuve’s filmography, however, is that it doesn’t leave one feeling jaded about the Hollywood system. He’s still as exciting now as he was in his early career. His artistic vision translated as he began working in English and then in the USA. His films now are just as lean and mean as they were back when his budgets used Canadian Tire money—the difference is simply one of scale.

The crew at That Shelf invites readers to join us in celebrating Denis Villeneuve as he gets the TIFF Ebert Director Award one year after Chloé Zhao accepted the honour en route to a Best Director Oscar. (We skipped the anthology film Cosmos, though, simply to focus on his work.) Villeneuve is already the talk of Toronto as his new flick Dune is easily the hottest ticket at the festival. Early word is strong and one can’t help but feel a sense of Canadian pride as Dune touches down and the director’s dreams become a reality. It’s very exciting to think that any up-and-coming Canadian director can now aspire to the same path. -Pat Mullen

 

The Films of Denis Villeneuve

 

REW-FFWD (1994)

This unnerving hybrid film tells the story of a photographer who lands in unfamiliar territory when his car breaks down in a Trench Town ghetto. As the unseen driver wanders the streets, speaks with the locals, and views the landscape through the lens of his camera, he puts aside his prejudice. In a work that evokes the films of Chris Marker, Villeneuve employs a mix of rapid-fire cuts and poetic interviews and photographs to create an essay on time and memory. – PM

 

August 32nd on Earth (1998)

Denis Villeneuve’s debut feature film August 32nd on Earth seems a little out of place when compared to everything that comes after it. The film lacks the intimacy of his more personal works and the sense of visual grandeur that many of his recent films offer. However, the film is not without its charm. The offbeat feature tells the tale of Simone (Pascale Bussières) as she decides, after surviving a car accident, that she wants to have a baby. Rather than go to a fertility clinic, Simone convinces her best friend Philippe (Alex Martin) to be the father. This sets in motion a unique journey that includes finding a corpse while stranded in Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. August 32nd on Earth is one of those films where you can tell a young director is working through various idea. It does not always land the way one would hope, but one can see the sense of promise that he would begin to deliver on in his next film. – Courtney Small

 

Maelström (2000)

The legacy of Maelström has been fascinating to observe. The film is most known these days as the one “narrated by a talking fish” by those who have not seen it due to its lack of availability. (Criterion, work your magic, please!) Winning five Genie Awards including Best Picture and receiving praise upon its release, there was a period a few years ago where it became a sort of punching bag for critics who wanted to knock Villeneuve down a peg or two. Do not listen to the naysayers, though: Maelström is a pure delight. Its eccentricities only heighten this beautiful and moving romance about a woman, Bibiane (Marie-Josée Croze), who accidentally kills a fishmonger in a hit and run incident and inadvertently ends up falling in love with the dead man’s son, Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verreault). One of my favourite Canadian films of all-time, Maelström is the film that announced Villeneuve as a visionary who was destined for big things.  – Courtney Small

 

Next Floor (2008)

One probably assumes Incendies or Arrival to be Denis Villeneuve’s most widely lauded movie, but with over 50 prizes and 120 festival screenings to its name, Next Floor is responsible for the director’s most bountiful awards shelf. The hardware includes a Cannes prize, a Genie, and a Jutra. Each win was well earned because this darkly funny portrait of a macabre banquet is among Villeneuve’s best work. It anticipates the hand at world building that he’d master on an epic scale in his Hollywood movies. –PM

 

Polytechnique (2009)

Dramatizing an act as heinous as the Montreal Massacre poses many challenges for a filmmaker. Honouring and respecting the memory of the victims, speaking to the truth of the event, and treading lightly on the perpetrator’s depiction are all considerations one must make. In his third feature film, Denis Villeneuve balances each of these factors with grace, compassion, and strength.

Polytechnique is told through the perspective of the survivors of the 1989 shooting at École Polytechnique. Villeneuve is careful not to sensationalize or create sympathy for the killer, refusing to give him an identity while acknowledging his motivations, lack of humanity, and mental standing. Instead, Villeneuve contrasts the abhorrent murder of 14 women with moments of friendship and family. Within all the tragedy, he creates a haunting portrait of how delicate and beautiful life is. An often underrated and overlooked film in his portfolio, Polytechnique was an early preview to Villeneuve’s abilities as a director, showing audiences his care for material and artistry. –Rachel Ho

 

Incendies (2010)

Denis Villeneuve propelled himself to another level with Incendies. The film solidified his status as an auteur, but thunderously expanded the way we think about Canadian cinema. This powerful film marked a landmark for situating tangibly Canadian stories within a larger global story of displacement and migration as twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxime Gaudette) retrace the journey that brought their mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), to Canada. The accentuation of the elements of Greek tragedy from the great play by Wajdi Mouawad, such as the addition of the tri-spotted Oedipal tattoo that connects the fates of Nawal’s children, offers access points that place Nawal’s own tragedy within a greater cultural mythology.

Villeneuve’s adaptation of Mouawad’s play demonstrates a greater opening up of Canadian film as Incendies itself opens up the stage play into the larger, more open, and more dynamic world of film. Incendies shows that a Canadian film can be relevant to Canada by transporting the action around the globe and bringing it home. (While challenging that idea of home, I should add.) I don’t think it’s an accident that such a powerful film anticipated major Canadian films such as Monsieur Lazhar, War Witch, and Funny Boy through its nuanced fusion of local and global perspectives. The film swept the field of Canadian prizes, winning Best Canadian Feature at TIFF, the Rogers Canadian Film Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association, Seven Genie Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. For me, Incendies easily earns a spot on Canada’s all-time top ten list. – PM

 

Prisoners (2013)

Based on the trailer, Prisoners seemed like a standard dramatic thriller about a family’s search for two missing kids with little promise that it would be anything other than a run-of-the-mill police procedural. That was the attitude I went into the 2013 TIFF premiere screening of Prisoners with—and, boy, was I wrong. Denis Villeneuve crafted superb moments of tension in his dark drama, anchored by a stellar turn from Hugh Jackman as a man fueled by grief and anger. This dark film is brutal and bleak. It challenges viewers emotionally from start to finish through a layered plot rife with red herrings and minuscule clues.

Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski’s story is anchored by the cast. Villeneuve certainly knows what he is doing when it comes to directing an ensemble of actors and Prisoners is no exception with Jackman, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano note perfect in their roles. Perhaps if my first experience of the film hadn’t been in a sold-out theatre that was so quiet at the film’s climax you could hear a pin drop, my initial feelings would be different. But even after multiple re-watches at home, Prisoners continues to deliver the same edge-of-your-seat type of suspense I experienced that first viewing and firmly stands as one of Villeneuve’s best and most-accessible films. –Rachel West

 

Enemy (2013)

You shouldn’t put too much stock in test screening reactions and I’ll tell you why: I saw a test of Enemy in 2013 and totally hated it. It was a mess. It made no sense. And that spider came out of nowhere. However, with a little tweaking and improved pacing, everything clicked. When I saw the film a year later, I was hypnotized and hooked, even if the adjustments were only relatively minor.

Villeneuve overturns the unnamed everyland of late author José Saramago in this devilish adaptation of The Double. Villeneuve’s enigmatic mind-bender brilliantly uses the ugliness of Toronto’s labyrinthine metal, concrete, and unrelenting coldness for one spectacularly dense mind-maze as a spider-web of streetcar tracks tangles the city and as Jake Gyllenhaal comes face to face with his dark side. Enemy needs to be seen twice in order to be both appreciated its infuriating elusiveness. – PM

 

Sicario (2015)

If Prisoners showed that Villeneuve could make box office hits, and Enemy showed that he still had his indie sensibilities, then Sicario was the culmination of both worlds. Made on mere $30 million budget, Villeneuve’s taut exploration of America’s war on drugs garnered $84 million worldwide and even spawned a sequel. What makes the success of the film even more impressive is the fact that Sicario is a slow burn tale. The action sequences come in spurts, but it hits like a shock to the system when they arrive. Reteaming with cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve takes viewers into a sweltering and tension filled Mexican city where the laws that FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) has been trained to obey have no meaning. Assigned to an inter-agency taskforce where she is teamed with Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a cartel specialist, Macer learns the hard way that America’s interest in the drug trade has little to do with elimination and everything to do with control. Endlessly re-watchable, Sicario reinforces that the lines between good and evil are usually blurred when the quest for power is involved.  – CS

 

Arrival (2016)

Friends and schoolmates allegedly called Denis Villeneuve “Spielberg” in his youth, but they probably didn’t expect him to reach truly Spielbergian heights. Villeneuve kicked off the recent “Spielberg” phase of his career with Arrival, a beautifully devastating mind-bending about love and loss. This brainy science fiction film has echoes of Villeneuve’s Canadian work as Arrival expands our minds and conjures speculative imagery to engage with our perception of reality. While Arrival displays Villeneuve’s technical mastery of the art form, it shows that he remains intrigued by aspects of human frailty as he finds leading star Amy Adams at her best. Adams anchors the film with a performance that probes her character’s courage and deepest insecurities as she tries to bridge a common language between Earth and the unknown. Villeneuve’s artistic voice is most apparent in Arrival and the fresh vision of this brainy sci-fi film helps it cut through the glut of mundane movies at the box office. The film scored Villeneuve his first Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director—honours he could conceivably win this year. – PM

 

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Anytime you make a sequel/reimagining of a popular work that came out over two decades ago, it’s going to divide fans. The divisive nature of Blade Runner 2049 should not have surprised anyone, nor should the fact that it underperformed at the domestic box office, though it was a success internationally. The original Blade Runner was not an instant hit, either. It was one of those thought-provoking science fiction tales that grew in popularity as more audiences reflected on it. Blade Runner 2049 does not reach the heights of the original, but it is still a very good film. While it does have some problematic moments, mainly how it tackles themes of race and gender—most of the female characters are poorly utilized—Villeneuve constructs a visually striking work that is backed by a richly textured narrative. More importantly, the film finally got cinematographer Roger Deakins his long-deserved Academy Award that had alluded him for 13 nominations prior. – CS

 

Bravo, Denis!

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