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 (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+
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 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+
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 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+
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
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
Un 32 août sur terre
Just Plain Bad