Sunday, October 4, 2015

the Directors: Denis Villeneuve

There are two sides to Denis Villeneuve: the playful surrealist, and the dead-serious dramatist. The best of his films often combine those two sides, creating a story juxtaposition that makes the work memorable. And the fact that they all look amazing certainly doesn’t hurt.

In addition, Denis Villeneuve is one of the few modern directors who always include strong parts for women. His films often show what desperate people do in desperate situations. Sometimes they respond with harsh violence, other times with frank sexuality. Many lie, some kill, most make poor decisions. But all of them face dilemmas in the context of a great story, executed masterfully by the filmmaker in question.

Un 32 août sur terre (1998)
Un 32 août sur terre (August 32nd on Earth), opens with 60 flawlessly assembled seconds of filmmaking that immediately throw us into the world of the film. The way the sequence is shot, edited and sound mixed captivates the viewer in a way so few films are able to, at least so quickly. Shortly after we’re introduced to Simone (Pascale Bussières), her life is put into perspective in a dramatic way. This leads her to ask her best friend, Philippe (Alexis Martin), to impregnate her. The problem is that Philippe is secretly in love with Simone, and if he sleeps with her, and her emotional love for him is unrequited, he fears it will ruin him.

It’s a fun concept, treated with reverence by Villeneuve. Un 32 août sur terre has a specific brand of humor, conveyed with purposefully frantic editing and animated lead performances, that makes the film very enjoyable. It’s shot to perfection by André Turpin, and features and unexpected and satisfying conclusion. It’s hard to predict where Un 32 août sur terre is going, and that ultimately proves to be its greatest strength. B+

Maelström (2000)
Fish are to Maelström what spiders are to Enemy. To be clear: the first voice we hear in Maelström is that of a mutilated, dying fish. The fish says he has a story to tell us. So, we listen. As we often do when fish speak.

The story we’re told is of Bibiane, played by the great Marie-Josée Croze (nurse in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, missing wife in Tell No One). To describe what portions of Bibiane’s life we’re privy to would be to ruin the unique charm of Maelström. But know that you’re unlikely to forget the first and last time you meet Bibiane in the film, and damn near every time in between.

The design of the film is surreal in that perfect Villeneuve way. In addition to the talking fish, title cards randomly intercut scenes and help explain what we’re watching. We also often see scenes twice, with the perspective of the sequence changing in a blink. The film is shot again by Turpin, but in Maelström, he replaces the wide open landscapes of Un 32 août sur terre with brutal emotional closeness. Croze has a face, and wide range of emotion, born for the camera. You can’t take her eyes off her.

Maelström a straight film with surreal aspects. It’s a movie about grief, coincidence, and chance. It’s deadly serious, but also seriously funny. Would make for an excellent double feature with Enemy. A

Short film: 120 Seconds to Get Elected (2006)
This is the first of three very concise, very experimental Villeneuve shorts that are listed in this post (none of which I see the point of grading). 120 Seconds to Get Elected is about a politician (standing in front of a blank white wall) giving a rousing speech to an increasingly supportive crowd (that is presumably stock footage). So, yeah, enjoy.

Short film: Next Floor (2008)
Villeneuve’s most professional-looking short is a real gem. When the film begins, a proper man in a tuxedo watches as other properly-dressed guests shovel grotesque-looking food in their mouths with ravenous glee. And is that dust that they’re covered in? But why? A-

Polytechnique (2009)
Polytechnique is the best film ever made about a school shooting. Or, perhaps, a mass shooting of any kind. The film is based on the École Polytechnique massacre that occurred in Montreal in 1989, when a man entered an engineering school with a rifle and a knife, and killed 14 women due to his disdain for feminism.

The thing to respect most about Villeneuve’s film is how unflinching it is. The movie pulls no punches, though thankfully it’s shot in stark black and white, because… the blood. It displays with vivid detail the physical and emotional carnage of that fateful day. Yet somehow manages to do this tastefully. Look at the screenshot I’ve embedded above. That’s how Villeneuve chooses to capture violence in this film: opaque, obscure, of little understanding. The film is 77 minutes long, but establishes itself as a harrowing masterpiece long before its conclusion. A hard film to watch (I wish Polytechnique wasn’t as topical as it is), but an essential one. A+ 

Incendies (2010)
I’ve talked about Incendies a lot on this site. I called the film perfect in my 2011 review, hailed it as the second best film of that year, and recently said it is one of the Top 10 films of the 2010s so far. I stand by all of that, and still have no interest in breaking down the film’s intricate plot in print, in fear of ruining it for new viewers.

But know this: Incendies is one of the harshest, most devastating, most transcendental films I’ve ever seen about the lifelong effects of violence. The first time I saw this film, I went into it completely blind. I thought the poster was evocative, and that was enough. When the movie concluded, I sat in a daze, jaw resting open, chills pulsating up my spine, eventually tingling my head. I had never seen anything like. And I certainly haven’t since. A brutal but flawless film. A+

Short film: Rated R for Nudity (2011)
For your daily dose of avant-garde psychological hypnosis.

Short film: Etude empirique sur l'influence du son sur la persistance rétinienne (2011)
Turn your speakers up really loud for this one.

Prisoners (2013)
Prisoners is Denis Villeneuve’s most conventional film. It’s a modestly budgeted studio film about the disappearance of children, and the family and police who search for them. On paper, it’s a movie we’ve all seen before. But thanks to Villeneuve’s visual flare, and an ace cast, Prisoners is elevated above other films of its kind.

The movie does have faults. There’s no reason for this to be Villeneuve’s longest film, and Maria Bello’s rapid descent into a pill-popping, bed-ridden depressive is a dishearteningly clichéd story choice. But those are things I’m willing to forgive, as I’m most drawn to Prisoners’ earnest moments. Hugh Jackman quietly reminding his daughter to be invited before they enter a home, Jake Gyllenhaal’s blinking tick (and his barely-mentioned past that could’ve caused it), Terrence Howard’s fear during the hammer scene, Gyllenhaal’s reaction to a suicide – all details that help ground the film. There’s a lot I like about Prisoners, but it is the Denis Villeneuve film that feels the least like a Denis Villeneuve film. However, if Prisoners is his weakest film yet, my God, what a fine “weak” effort it is. B+

Enemy (2013)
I’m not sure I’ve been as “Oh fucked” by a film since Enemy. I’ve been impressed by several, and even loved some, but in the year and a half since I first saw Enemy, no film has made me reflect on it with a more resounding sense of “Oh…fuck.”

Enemy works because it is completely unapologetic in its approach. Don’t understand the film? Okay… and? Don’t get the spiders, the repetitiveness, the car crash, the ending. Okay… and? That’s the attitude Villeneuve displays in the film, and the one he amusingly adopted when promoting Enemy in the press. I watched countless interviews with Villeneuve discussing Enemy, and he rarely gave the same answer twice when asked to explain the film. Not all cinema is meant to be explained. The beauty of films like Enemy isn’t in the understanding, it’s in the experience you have while watching it and discussing it later. It’s still baffling to me that Villeneuve made Enemy and Prisoners back-to-back (they both premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival). One is conventional in its execution, and the other is a surreal masterpiece that stands wholly on its own. A

Sicario (2015)
The best film of 2015 so far is Denis Villeneuve’s impossibly tense drug war thriller, Sicario. To begin, rarely does a film’s cinematography and musical score compliment one another so seamlessly. Oscar nominations for both DP Roger Deakins and musician Jóhann Jóhannsson should be foregone conclusions. More importantly, the way this film looks and sounds will be remembered and discussed for years. And many filmmakers do this. They put painstaking effort into the technical aspects of their movie. They rely on them, typically because the story is faulty and/or the actors are weak. The thinking is that if the movie at least looks good, some praise will be warranted. But not only is Sicario a technical marvel, it’s a compelling story crafted with precision and acted with mastery.

The film is primarily about an FBI agent (Emily Blunt, never better) who is recruited by a playfully mysterious government agent (Josh Brolin) to help his task force take down a major drug cartel. The task force is full of colorful characters, including an amusingly unflinching Jeffrey Donovan, and a soft spoken master of combat, played by Benicio Del Toro. Performance wise, the film belongs to Blunt and Del Toro. The nervous energy that occupies their scenes together is enough to hail Sicario as great. Add in Deakins and Jóhannsson’s respective contributions, and a handful of astounding set pieces, and we’re dealing with a film of spectacular fashion. Simply put, Sicario has everything going for it. To miss the experience of seeing this film in the theater would be to do yourself a great disservice. A

In Summation
Masterful
Polytechnique
Incendies
Enemy

Great
Un 32 août sur terre 
Maelström
Next Floor 
Prisoners
Sicario

Good
None

Eh
None

Just Plain Bad
None

45 comments:

  1. The only films of his I've seen so far are Prisoners and Incendies as the latter is just incredible. I would like to see more of his work as I hope to see Sicario later this month.

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    1. Good stuff. Would love know what you think of Polytechnique and Enemy. Can't wait to read your thoughts on Sicario.

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  2. I've only seen Prisoners and Enemy, both of which I like a good deal. The guy definitely knows how to craft a compelling story. Looking forward to seeing more from him.

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    1. Definitely check out Incendies if you can. All of his work is great, but that one's a gut punch. Glad you're a fan!

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  3. Villeneuve is certainly a talent. I haven't seen either of his first 2 features but every other film by him I've seen and really enjoyed (and in some cases loved). I think his grasp on genre is perhaps one of the best examples of his talent. As you say, so many other directors could have taken the scripts for Prisoners or Sicario and turned them into generic thrillers (that would probably not be thrilling at all) - but the man knows how to not only craft an exciting and engaging piece of genre technically, but also draw out ideas from the script and performances from the cast that are unexpected.
    I'm not sure I would agree that Polytechnique is the best film about school-shooting (film about a school-shooting, or rather a mass shooting or anything like it, and what a horrible place the world is in that there can be films made about MULTIPLE incidents of this kind), to me Elephant is still pretty damn good. The two are probably about even imo but I'd have to go back and watch them both to really give a definitive answer.
    As for best film of the year (Queen of Earth sir, that's #1 for me ;-) - at least as of right now lol).

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    1. Awesome man, so glad you're a fan of his work and that you hold his films in such high regard. In my opinion, Polytechnique felt like an improvement of Elephant. Both are similar (following the shooter and victims around, brief run time, indie sensibilities), and both are great, but Polytechnique feels like the superior achievement.

      Queen of the Earth was NUTS! I loved it. But Sicario stills falls at number 1 for me.

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  4. Ah, Denis Villeneuve. Incendies was a thing of terrifying beauty, Prisoners was a tense, if like you said, conventional film, and Enemy was a supreme mindfuck. I really need to catch up on his earlier films, and I simply cannot wait for Sicario. Is Polytechnique really better than Elephant?

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    1. SO glad you like Incendies. Terrifying beauty, indeed. Polytechnique is better than Elephant, but both are great films. They're actually very similar, but Polytechnique is the better-crafted film. Would love to hear your thoughts.

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  5. Hooray! Was looking forward to this one- and cant wait to see Sicaro :D

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    1. It's sooo good. Let me know what you think!

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  6. I have only seen Prisoners and Enemy from him so far, but i loved both of those so i definitely want to go back and check out some of his earlier work as well. I'm planning on seeing Sicario in theaters this week as well.

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    1. Nice. Check out Polytechnique and Incendies if you can. But probably not in the same day. Rough, rough shit.

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  7. I've only seen three...Incendies, Prisoners and Enemy. I thought Enemy was genius. I thought Incendies was pretty awful...and Prisoners is one of the very worst films I've ever seen...ever.

    That being said...I do want to check out the rest of his filmography, since he clearly has talent as a director. I just think he needs better scripts.

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    1. Well shit, at least you like Enemy haha. Would be interested to hear what you think of Polytechnique.

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  8. "shows what desperate people do in desperate situations" sounds about right about his work. I've watched three films by Villeneuve and liked them(Enemy,Incendies, Prisoners). I agree the latter is good yet overlong. Need to check out Polytechnique, Malström and Sicario!
    My worry is Hollywood will eventually corrupt him into making mindless blockbusters, I hope he stays true to the spirit of his earlier work. Blade Runner sequel with him at the helm is pretty mouth-watering!

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    1. I think (or at least hope!) that he won't be converted into a Hollywood troll. Kind of like Alejandro González Iñárritu. Makes challenging films his own way. I just hope Villeneuve doesn't take another 9 year break between features.

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  9. I've only seen Prisoners and Enemy, and I loved both. I'm going to see Sicario on Friday if everything works out. I'm going to have to check out these shorts.

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    1. Good stuff. Hope you dig Sicario - it's so damn intense.

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  10. I want to get my hands on copies of Maelstrom and especially Polytechnique. Prisoners, Enemy and Incendies are all A+'s for me and Sicario right now is an A. Even Ground Floor is incredible. Villeneuve, more than any other director to come out this last decade, has impressed me the most.

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    1. Totally agree. Incendies was the first film of his that I saw, and I knew he was a filmmaker I was destined to love. How whacky is Next Floor?

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  11. He's getting better, but I've only seen his more recent work. I saw Sicario last week, and it's fighting for a spot in my top 5 of the year so far. So great, as are Enemy, Prisoners, and Incendies. I really need to see Polytechnique.

    Fingers crossed for the Blade Runner sequel. Really excited and kinda nervous about it.

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    1. I just read an interview with Roger Deakins and he said Blade Runner 2 will likely be converted to 3D in post. It's an interesting read, because he's clearly not happy about it, but he knows it's just part of the game now. I've had trouble with Blade Runner over the years, mostly because I have no idea which version to watch haha. Aren't there like seven?!

      Polytechnique, man. Just... man.

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    2. Haha, something like that. I've always preferred the 1992 director's cut, but I hear the 2007 final cut is pretty good.

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    3. See man, that's what I'm saying haha.

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  12. Man, Sicario left me shaken. I agree that it's the best of the year (although Mad Max: Fury Road ranks very close behind it). But Sicario, man, each shot is just impeccable. The score and performances too. And the thought that something like that's going on, and in our own back yard. Christ.

    I feel like he gets better with ever film. I've seen Prisoners (B+), Enemy (A), and Sicario (A+).
    I think he might be one of my Top Five favorite directors working today (along Michael Haneke, Wes Anderson, The Coen Brothers, and maybe either David Fincher or Spike Jonze). I just need to get my hands on copies on Incendies (easy enough), Maelstrom (not so easy), and Polytechnique ("currently unavailable" on Amazon. Fuck). I'm not really looking forward to Blade Runner 2, though, because it seems unnecessary to me, and also because I wasn't a fan of the original at all. But I think Villeneuve is a much, much, much better director than Ridley Scott, so who knows?

    I saw an earlier comment mentioning Queen of Earth. How was that? I really wanted to see it, but it didn't come around to my neck of the woods (I live in the Bay Area, you'd think it would at least come to San Francisco or something?). I'll just have to catch it on Blu-ray, I suppose.

    Also, can someone please tell me how to pronounce "Villeneuve"? I try to tell my friends about him, but I keep stumbling.

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    1. Can't say I'm very excited for Blade Runner 2 either. But I do have faith in Villeneuve, so we shall see. I know his earlier work is hard to find, but definitely keep trying. Such great work.

      Queen of Earth is good but fucking out there. I watched it twice in two days, and still need more viewings to fully process it.

      I believe it's Den-e Vill-n-oove.

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    2. Thank you very, very much for that pronunciation.

      "Fucking out there" is exactly my kind of movie (ever see House/Hausu? One of my favorites), so the high levels of anticipation I feel for Queen of Earth have just shot up higher.

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    3. House! I haven't seen that in so long. Need to rewatch it asap. Whatta mind fuck.

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  13. Awesome write up! I couldn't dislike Prisoners more but it's not because of his direction which was actually great, it's the script. The script was also pretty much the only issue I had with Sicario - that whole Mexican cop's family scenes just felt so unnecessary and cliche for me.But other than his films are just getting better and better and he really gets amazing work from his actors

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    1. I loved that Mexican cop arc in Sicario because *spoilers!* the flick spends an inordinate amount of time having the audience gain sympathy for him and them BAM! he's killed him off the second shit gets hot. Fucking merciless.

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  14. This guy is really on a roll at the minute, I gotta see more of his movies.

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    1. Yeah for sure, he's really killing it.

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  15. I really loved Sicario, I'd give it an A-. The cop subplot felt a bit unnecessary, (spoilers) like they tried to pull off a Heat move but with a bit less development. Honestly, the story over all felt simple. A drug busting movie with revenge elements to it isn't really new but I am inclined to a decent story told in a great way (Memento), then a great premise wasted. I appreciate the storytelling aspect more then the story itself.

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    1. I don't share your assessment of the cop subplot.

      I think Villeneuve is showing that the war on drugs envelops even those at the periphery ... even otherwise decent people. That isn't going to be a groundbreaking revelation but I think his reminder is that even the decent are forced to do things perhaps they wouldnt normally do on account of the war having solified the power of the overlords.

      I think the pausing of the soccer came and then its resuming - and the soccer game is connected to the cop because his son is playing - served nicely as a metaphor that the violence perpetuated by the war on drugs will go on even if this or that person seemingly responsible meets his or her end.

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    2. I'm with Hamlet on this one. I pretty much echoed this thought two comments above (in response to Sati). But what's really important is that we all loved the film.

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  16. Everyone knows that Villeneuve is Canadian, right?

    (Well ... Quebecois so it's possible he doesn't consider himself Canadian).

    In any event ... I was blown away by the punch of Incendies and that was despite years and years of build up and desire to see it. I'm not sure why it took me so long.

    No issue with Prisoners - I really liked Prisoners actually - or Enemy and I really enjoyed Sicario.

    So ... while the Mexicans have taken over the film industry - and thank goodness - there's a good Canadian out there too.

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    1. I'm a bit confused by your comment. I know Villeneuve is Canadian. Did I say somewhere that he's not...?

      I'm glad you're a fan of his work. His films are so important and so damn well made.

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    2. Nope ... you're good. I just wanna make sure everyone knows. :)

      I wanna get people off of thinking Canadians are all weirdos like Chronenberg and Egoyan...

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  17. Can you believe I’ve watched my two first Villeneuve films during the past few weeks? What a coincidence! It all started because a friend of mine recommended me Saramago’s novel, which Enemy is based on, and then I decided to watch the film, which I had already on my to watch list but never found the right time to do it before. Then I remembered Jake Gyllenhaal was the protagonist and I was more eager to watch it because I’m a great fan of his, and what a film! I was so shocked by it that I even told my mother she needed to watch it so we could talk about it (it’s an old habit for me to comment films like that one with my mother, probably because I started watching Bergman and Lynch with her and she's a psychologist and always offers me a different view on those films). And then, last Sunday, they premiered Prisoners on Spain’s national television and as I was staying at her house, we decided to watch it together. Needless to say we loved it too. I understand why you like Enemy more than Prisoners. I’m still haunted by the vision of the upside-down on the corridor and by the spider… I even had dreams about it. And I loved Adam Bell's monologues to his students, and the ending. But I also liked about Prisoners, quite a lot, even knowing about its faults, because of the tension on it and Gyllenhaal’s performance as Loki. It’s one of those unforgettable characters. If it would have been a TV series I’d demand a spin-off focused on Loki. I even see him as a possible counterpart of Saga Noren on Bron. I'd definitely check out Villeneuve's previous works (this post was very helpful) and Sicario, which I was already anticipating because of the plot and the cast. Moreover, I'm now less afraid about the Blade Runner sequel knowing Villeneuve might direct it. I loved what Ridley Scott did, a stunning film, but his approach was quite different to the novel and I feel like Villeneuve (in particular the Villeneuve of Enemy) could do a better job bringing to the screen Philip K. Dick's vision. There were some elements in the novel they didn’t use on the film and I think Villeneuve could use them.
    I have to reply to your message, hope to do it asap!

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    1. SO happy you're enjoying his work, he really is an incredible filmmaker isn't he? I too think Blade Runner 2 can be great, as long as we get the experimental Villeneuve. But I fear that may not happen, as it's a studio film, but we shall see. Enemy really floored me, very few directors have the audacity to make movies like that anymore. I do love a good piece of surrealist cinema.

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  18. I feel like 'Sicario' is a masterpiece. I couldn't believe how good that movie was. I look forward to seeing more from this director in the future.

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    1. So good, right? Really happy you enjoyed it. I'm excited to see it again soon too.

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  19. i'm already looking forward to your review for Arrival <3

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