Director Spotlight: Denis Villeneuve
Two years ago, on the 9th of October in 2021, Warner Bros. released the first trailer for their upcoming sci-fi blockbuster, Dune. Gripping, steeped in intrigue with standout names both behind and in front of the camera, the film was poised to be well received by critics and audiences alike under the stewardship of director Denis Villeneuve. The trailer and a subsequent interview that followed became my introduction to Villeneuve and his work. A filmography exhibiting a profound passion for the art of storytelling, a passion resonating in his words, sparked a curiosity in me to go through his illustrious body of work. Throughout the process, the birth and evolution of compelling patterns and stylings emerged to highlight why Villeneuve’s cinema stood out as distinct from his fellow auteurs.
Quebec born French-Canadian, Denis Villeneuve became fascinated with cinema as a child and made several short films throughout high school. Although he initially studied science after high school, he went on to shift his focus to film and worked with the National Film Board of Canada before making his first feature, Un 32 août sur terre (August 32nd on Earth). It is this fascination with cinema that he strives to exemplify throughout his career.
His love of filmmaking thus informs and is observed in each facet of his work along with a meticulous attention to detail in creating immersive, atmospheric worlds that each inhabit touchingly complex stories of their own.
Personally, my adoration for Villeneuve’s work stems from my experience with it, serving for me as a gateway into the larger world of filmmaking and cinematic discourse. It is also in my surveying of the cinematic landscape of the day, very rare that a director with such thematic and visual depth as Villeneuve would achieve the amount of notoriety he has. A fact that only speaks to his power as a storyteller in connecting with his audiences, myself included, and leading them to hold his work as dear to their hearts. It seems therefore, increasingly pertinent to bring into focus the stylings and manners that Villeneuve employs to connect with his audiences and craft his opuses as the thought put into the same deems recognition.
Villeneuve’s place in the contemporary cinematic space today, stands as that of a longstanding auteur navigating the erratic landscape. Unlike directors such as Alex Garland, Edgar Wright and Ridley Scott, to name a few, who while having extremely promising starts have been on a downward spiral, both commercially and artistically, Villeneuve has managed to remain commercially successful and retain his artistic merit.
Throughout his career therefore, Villeneuve has shaped his filmmaking devices to make for an amalgamation of what would be commercially viable and simultaneously artistically fulfilling. Through interviews and sit downs, Villeneuve has expressed how his work is fuelled by his passion for filmmaking which is his instrument in maintaining artistic value. Commercially, however, Villeneuve has had to condense his filmmaking devices to fit a certain criteria to be commercially successful through stages of evolution coupled with the trials and tribulations associated with the same.
This evolution came in the form of conceiving methods of retaining the thematic complexity and depth of his earlier work and transferring a streamlined yet invisibly complex version of the same onto a more vivid, striking canvas. Through this, his work demonstrates a progressive ability to increasingly engage and move audiences whilst speaking to some intricate subject matter, seen in its trajectory of three formative triads, each building on the other.
Following on from his first feature, Villeneuve wrote and directed his breakthrough feature in 2000’s Maelstrom, commencing the first phase of his career. A piece capturing the erratic toil that ensues in a woman’s life as she reckons with a distressing abortion and its fallout, Maelstrom received critical acclaim, subsequently winning the special jury prize at the Toronto International Film Festival that year.
An eight year hiatus from the world of film followed as Villeneuve took time to hone his craft, working on several commercials in the process. While unusual at first glance, a hiatus at a time where his career was on the brink of potential mainstream success only further speaks to the artist’s authenticity as an artist and in his perceptive appreciation of cinema.
Polytechnique, a sombre depiction of a 1998 antifeminist mass shooting in Montreal came at the tail end of Villeneuve’s hiatus. Managing to illustrate the misogyny surrounding the event along with chronicling the trauma of the same, the film still leaves a message of hope of its coming generations doing better. Such themes of trauma and generational discord are also found in the director’s next feature, Incendies. Incendies recounts a Middle Eastern family’s search for their wrought roots in the face of war and violence, becoming an underappreciated critics’ favourite and garnering Villeneuve the most publicity he ever had.
In his first triad, the auteur grappled with brutal realities and reflected on the varied facets of trauma. These come in Villeneuve’s nuanced writing of trauma that is generational and rooted in displaced families, trauma stemming from survivors guilt along with trauma steeped in past mistakes. While explored in other works before, the director’s visceral take on trauma actively engages the audience whilst highlighting the unsavoury, morally grey fallout and acceptance of the same. In the process, Villeneuve weaves together thematic compositions on pain and guilt in the agonising portrayals of the same in Incendies and Polytechnique.
The French-Canadian auteur’s films also managed to speak to a number of social issues by entwining their narratives with commentary on pertinent issues, a trait honed throughout his work. Complex topics, such as conflict, intolerance, and emancipation, became his subjects this time around. The tackling of such issues also serves to add additional layers of emotional and thematic depth to Villeneuve’s work, enabling the audience to resonate and empathise with and understand those issues through the medium of a poignant story.
The director thereby creates a cyclic depiction of these themes with the social issues informing those very themes. A coarse, somewhat intentionally rough nature precedes all three films almost as if Villeneuve reflects the brutality of his thematic compositions in the harshness of his stylings. A primary reflection of this harshness is in its resolute tackling of uncomfortable themes, compelling the audience to uncomfortably face the same, thoroughly engaging them.
Villeneuve’s breakthroughs always craft intensely cathartic tales that manage to elicit the intended emotions from their audiences by subtly perfecting the balance between story and character. This balance is something he works with ingeniously in his works that follow as the first phase of his career serves to establish the directorial tenets he develops through the course of his filmography.
The filmmaker moved into the second phase of his filmography with 2013’s Prisoners, a stark and unfeeling mystery surrounding the disappearance of two children, rooted in the sheer tenacity of the human spirit. His first Hollywood project, Prisoners garnered widespread critical adoration.
The next project, an adaptation of José Saramago’s novel ‘The Double’, Enemy, comes as his most thematically ambitious and cryptic film yet. Enemy’s surreally layered and interpretive nature, much like his previous work, invited adulation from critics and award juries earning itself a Directors Guild of Canada Award for Best Feature and five Canadian Screen Awards.
Villenuve delivers another pair of definitive works for his career within the span of a year, a trait set to change further on in his career. The final project part of his second triad, Sicario is an enigmatic thriller chronicling the tale of an FBI agent grappling with the alarming realities and morality of her job in a sharp portrayal of the cross border drug trade and its numbing aftermath.
The director subsequently moves from speaking to trauma to dissecting the various aspects of identity, unravelled through tenuous adversity. Villeneuveunapologetically bares the evils of the world to his audience and through the process hones in on the virtues of his protagonists in their response to the same. Once again, in forcing the audience to face discomfort, Villeneuve even compels his viewers to introspect on their own reaction to the tumultuous setting his work depicts.
Overarchingly, this triad of Villeneuve's films witnesses a general nature of cold pessimism. The auteur delves into the complex nuances of morality, examining its blurred lines and the tenuous circumstances that result in the same. There is also an underlying weaving in of a myriad of themes like desperation, identity and hostility. His thematic compositions make identity the focal point of his protagonists' journeys, drawing out his character arcs to be revealed through mystery.
This second triad features meticulously crafted mazes that move in slow and deliberate manners as the filmmaker begins to hone his distinct ability to compose visually atmospheric frames. Villeneuve’s presentation of austere and gruelling spaces reflects the coldness of his audience's distinct feelings.
The filmmaker therefore, channels despair and desperation as driving forces for these narratives as his direction keenly depicts the layered blurring of the fragile lines of ethics. Prisoners also marks Villeneuve’s union with longtime collaborator and acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins. The duo went on to collaborate on two additional projects. Deakins helped in establishing the director’s visual style as one known for its sweeping shots coupled with motifs of profound symbolism. The two notably worked to perfect use of darkness and scale in their projects as Villenuve’s now trademark style began to take form.
Deakins described his collaborator as “not somebody who just directs from a script. He's always searching for something more than what's on a page.” Villeneuve’s second phase concludes in a refinement of his storytelling and visual stylings along with a commercial-critical high, engaging larger audiences than ever. Through this very recognition, Villeneuve also began to become a potential name for studios to trust with lucrative projects, the result of which is seen in his future work.
Villenuve also makes significant use of his trademark static lingering frame that hones in on the various mundane aspects of a scene, an ode to Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu and his renowned ‘pillow shots’, depicting the details of a scene to heighten its impact.
The third phase of Villeneuve’s filmography sees him becoming an integral part of the group of directors reviving contemporary science fiction in the twenty-first century. Villeneuve positions himself firmly at the forefront of ushering in a renaissance of sci-fi filmmaking with a trilogy of projects, starting with 2016’s Arrival.
In Arrival, Villeneuve tells the meditative story of two cryptic extraterrestrial pods arriving on earth with a message and the linguistic professor tasked with decoding the same. Arrival’s exceedingly laudatory critical reception further propelled Villeneuve to be entrusted with projects possessing distinguished existing intellect.
In the same vein, Villeneuve was tasked with 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s cult classic Blade Runner that he had long cited as a key influence on his directorial style. Scott’s 1984 classic was a masterclass in immersive, starkly atmospheric and visually distinct filmmaking stylings with its subtly ingenious use of light and darkness, something Villenuve channels time and again in his work. The original, also known for its use of symbolism and poetic imagery, is also a visible influence in Villenuve’s fondness of the same throughout his career. Additionally, the winding pace of the original that allowed the audience to almost live in its melancholy world is also a tenet heavily influencing the auteur’s slow-paced, thoughtful opuses.
The film was poised to be a critical and commercial juggernaut and widely seen as a frontrunner to be among the best movies of the year. However, despite the quality of its storytelling, Blade Runner 2049’s commercial turnover was a calamity at best, losing the studio an estimated $80 million according to The Hollywood Reporter. For its $150 million plus budget (alongside marketing, distribution costs and such), the film unfortunately didn’t entirely connect with audiences, surprisingly grossing an underwhelming $258 million with a majority of that coming from the international box office.
The primary factors for this disconnect seemed to stem from the lack of awareness of the film’s origins along with a wider cinema landscape that increasingly favoured bite sized, entertainment oriented films over methodic think pieces that build on their origins. The film also faced criticism from audiences who thought the pacing and length, being considered too long and glacially placed for mainstream audiences.
Blade Runner 2049, Villenuve’s first major franchise film, also became his first and biggest box office bomb, leaving his career on razors edge. While critical reception sang the film's, and his praises, the major studios’ faith in Villeneuve to tackle blockbuster projects was suddenly shaken.
With his reputation precarious at best, his latest feature had more hinging on its commercial success than had ever before been at stake. Fortunately, Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi masterpiece, Dune, excelled with flying colours at the task. The novel, widely considered unfilmable owing to the sheer depth and detail of its material, was one of Villeneuve’s most beloved novels and influences early in life. His adaptation of the same therefore, was able to capture the multitude of themes, worlds, and narratives of the novel and make it a critical and commercial giant.
Garnering massive critical praise and being one of the highest grossing films of 2021, Dune also went on to have 10 Academy Award nominations, winning 6. The reception for his last three films had set him leaps and bounds ahead of some of his contemporaries. The trilogy has also seen a parallel increase in their stellar quality as shared by film journalist Helen O'Hara, who visited the set of Dune for Empire magazine, saying "It was a big leap up to Arrival. It was a very big leap up to Blade Runner 2049. It's been a leap even from there to Dune".
Villeneuve’s third triad is one steeped in the pensive pondering of existential questions. Speaking to the very humanity of humanity, asking what it is that truly makes us human, Villeneuve’s themes delve into the introspective nature of the sentiments that make us unique. Arrival keenly speaks to the nature of time, the boundaries and poetic cycle of the same along with dealing with choice and depicting a nuanced portrait of the complexities of the same. Concurrently, Villeneuve’s Dune dallies with topics and themes as elaborate as ecology, imperialism, and destiny.
Laced into these works are affecting depictions of the implications of technology and overreliance on the same, corporate monopoly, and exploitation. Furthermore, Villeneuve’s stark visual aesthetic reaches its refined peak, infusing a grandeur to its scenes. Simultaneous with this grandeur, Villeneuve presents agonisingly detailed landscapes the symbolism of which he carefully weaves into his worldbuilding. Through an accumulation of these, Villeneuve’s work gained notoriety for being immersive audio-visual spectacles with layers of ingeniously crafted production design to add depth to his worlds.
The immersive ambience of Villeneuve’s worlds is further enhanced by his astute prowess in the framing, editing and visual composition of his films. The lighting and editing in particular served the role of putting the audience in a certain perspective as well as providing a sentiment or tone needed in the moment allowing the film to elicit the intended emotions from its viewers. The usage of visual cues and motifs representative of pivotal emotions, decisions and goals pertaining to certain characters is also a visual device the auteur employs to hammer home the conscious control of his audience’s emotions, most notably seen in Arrival.
Another key instrument through which Villenuve engages his viewers is through the intriguing use of open ended ambiguity and uncertainty in his work. Such ambiguity thus urges the viewers to contemplate the nature and meaning of the same, interpreting the intentional vagueness through their own distinct lenses. The ambiguity Villeneuve employs, especially in his endings and the personalised interpretations that stem from the same thus help establish another connective thread between the film and its viewer.
Roger Deakins, the filmmaker’s aforementioned frequent collaborator and skilled cinematographer, said that Villeneuve’s carefully crafted style of direction “probably owes more to Eastern-European or Japanese filmmaking than it does to American filmmaking”. In doing so he stressed upon Villeneuve’s practice of “considered filmmaking” that draws more from directors like Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky whose brand of meticulously crafted, intricate films is closer to Villeneuve’s own.
Villeneuve's latest ventures have thus made him part of a group of proficient auteurs with significant exposure working to highlight the subtle beauty of the art form. His following endeavours too, seem to further his foray into science fiction with a sequel to Dune having completed production and set to be released late 2023. Villeneuve has also been confirmed to helm an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s acclaimed novel Rendezvous with Rama, all but cementing himself as a bastion of contemporary science fiction filmmaking.
While lauded for the most part, Villeneuve’s work does have its fair share of criticisms both in terms of his work, and the political undertones of the same.
In terms of critiques of his work, his films are also known for their significant length which has been cited as a cause for bringing down the overall quality of the works by dragging its narrative along for perhaps far too long. The same is only exacerbated by the aforementioned slow pacing. His work has also been examined and subsequently described as somewhat style over substance due to his distinct visual style and thematic composition that is striking to an audience as the first thing they notice.
To speak to certain criticisms of the political undertones of his films, Villeneuve’s Dune was widely criticised for being a ‘white saviour’ story. Traditionally, White saviorism refers to a pattern of viewing white people as ‘rescuing’ people in marginalised communities.
However, in the opinion of this article, while upon a cursory viewing of Dune: Part I the claim may be seen to have merit, the progression of the narrative does in fact hint at an evental deconstruction of the trope as explicitly covered in the novels. Villeneuve even went on to directly address the strife saying in response “It's not a celebration of a saviour. It's a criticism of the idea of a saviour, of someone that will come and tell another population how to be.”
Furthermore, Dune was also faced with allegations of cultural whitewashing. Frank Herbert, the author of the original novels, had in the past stated how the roles and culture of the ‘fremen’ people in the novel was heavily inspired by influences from Islamic and more specifically Middle Eastern culture. Thus, the lack of casting people of Middle Eastern origin in the roles of the ‘fremen’, including those played by Zendaya and Javier Bardem, became a concern. In the past, similar concerns regarding the lack of Middle Eastern casting also plagued Incendies, centred around a Middle Eastern family.
When asked about whether the casting of Zendaya in particular was "born out of a desire to add another name or more diversity”, Francine Maisler, the casting director of Dune, responded that Zendaya’s was a role where “[they] wanted more diversity”. Thus, while commendable in intention, whether such is the appropriate kind of diversity is a question we must ask.
Questions surrounding the depiction and virtue of women in Villenuve’s filmography have also been underlying and persistent. The portrayal of women in Blade Runner 2049 did face some criticism for the same. This was owing to the fact that most of the film’s supporting female characters were mostly sex workers, objects and androids created for use along with being present only in relation to their male counterparts.
The film thus notably failed to pass certain key criteria of the Bechdel Test , a common tool to gauge the representation and role of women in cinema. In response, Villenuve defended this depiction by stressing how the writing was intentionally done as such to mirror contemporary society’s up abuse and objectification of women. Villeneuve added that “it’s not about our future, it’s like a magnifying glass onto this society”. Another possible explanation is the nature of society within the Blade Runner canon, one that presents itself as a desolate dystopia where women’s roles in society were crafted by men, solely for men.
As an auteur director who prioritises the quality of audio-visuals to provide an almost vicarious experience to the audience, Villeneuve has continually strived to preserve the theatre experience, urging audiences to support and cherish the experience. Villeneuve himself also made persistent efforts and requests to promote the release of Dune theatrically while the studio proceeded with its simultaneous theatrical and streaming release.
Within the cinematic landscape, the filmmaker has also championed the usage of practical effects, and on-location filming instead of overuse and an overdependence on CGI. A staunch prioritisation of thematic composition and storytelling virtues over shallow forgettable media is another aspect of filmmaking he aims to achieve with each project.
Such tenets lend an increasingly evocative nature to his work, enabling him to make meaningful films that keep their audiences thinking even after the credits roll. Villeneuve’s cinema is most certainly one that exemplifies the riveting power of well-worked silences infusing an interpretive, reflective quality for its audience to connect with.
Throughout his filmography, Villeneuve has not only condensed his stylings to be more refined but more earnestly achieved an immaculate balance between preserving his artistic integrity and ensuring the quality of his work while simultaneously navigating the contemporary media landscape and retaining commercial feasibility. Broadly, his body of work discusses the distinct facets of the human psyche in a way that exhibits a profound passion and respect for the art of cinema that like all subjective art is imperfect yet most certainly deems appreciation.
Denis Villeneuve’s passion and deep appreciation for the craft bleeds into every frame of his direction and stands staunch in the face of the ubiquitous banalities of the present-day landscape of cinema.
‘Making poetry with a camera - that's the essence of what I do.’
Edited by Thenthamizh SS, Eshal Zahur and Adi Roy
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