Denis Villeneuve is one of those directors who I accidentally became a fan of. The first film directed by Denis Villeneuve that I watched was Prisoners back in 2013 which I loved, and I have watched all of his American films since then and have been majorly impressed by every single one, several of them being among my favorite films of all time. Although I was interested in watching Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 no matter who directed them, when I kept seeing Villeneuve’s name on all these outstanding films, I assumed there was something special about this filmmaker, and now his name is the main reason why I am interested in seeing Dune.
Born in Bécancour, Quebec in 1967, he first studied science at the largely French-language Cégep de Trois-Rivières College of General and Vocational Education in Trois-Rivières, Quebec before shifting his focus to studying film at Université de Québec à Montréal, another French-language university.
He started out directing short films and rock music videos in the early nineties which won him local acclaim in youth film competitions before he made his feature film directorial debut in 1998 with August 32nd on Earth. This film told the strange story of a woman who survives a car crash and immediately decides to quit her job and have a baby…with her best friend…who has a girlfriend…and she wants to have the baby in the middle of the desert. Villeneuve leans into the film’s absurdity in comical ways but the bigger problem is the lack of depth in the characterizations, although it is more interesting on a visual level and it features a great soundtrack by some Quebec rock musicians. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and it was even Canada’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at that year’s Academy Awards, but it wasn’t selected for nomination.
After this film, Villeneuve had a string of successful films in Canada. His second film Maelström (2000) was a psychological drama he wrote starring Marie-Josée Croze as a businesswoman who becomes romantically involved with someone connected to a man she killed in a hit-and-run accident (keeping with the car crash theme). And the whole story, by the way, is narrated by a talking fish. The oddball film got mostly positive reviews and won Best Picture at the 21st Genie Awards as well as Best Direction, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Actress for Croze. Some people called the film too dark but Villeneuve saw the film as comedic and close to fantasy.
Villeneuve’s third film Polytechnique (2009) was a truth-based drama he co-wrote with Jacques Davidst that dramatizes the events of the 1989 Montreal Massacre, re-enacting the events through the eyes of two students played by Sebastien Huberdeau and Karine Vanasse, who see the gunman (Maxim Gaudette) murder 14 women. The film was controversial and its existence was a hot-button issue for Canadians but Villeneuve thought there was a story worth telling. Although it was respectfully shot in black and white to make the blood in the violent scenes less graphic. Polytechnique won the Genie Awards for Best Motion Picture, Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Original Screenplay and even Score.
His fourth film Incendies (2010) was probably his biggest international breakthrough success. A drama based on the 2003 play by Wajdi Mouawad with a screenplay co-written with Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne, it told the story about Canadian twins (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette) travelling to their mother’s native country in the Middle East to unlock a secret to their past. It is actually partly inspired by the Lebanese Civil War although the country in the film is unnamed. Despite being unfamiliar with Arab culture, Villeneuve connected with the material seeing the story could be told similarly to a Greek tragedy. This was Canada’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards and it was Villeneuve’s first film to garner an Oscar nomination, although it lost to Denmark’s In a Better World. But it did win the Genie Award for Best Motion Picture in Canada as well as Best Direction for Villeneuve, making him a recepient for that award three films in a row for Maelström, Polytechnique and Incendies.
Villeneuve’s last Canadian film was Enemy (2013), a loose adaptation of José Saramogo’s 2002 novel The Double which starred Jake Gyllenhaal as two twin brothers who are both unaware of each other’s existence. It earned praise as a tense thriller and earned Villeneuve another Best Direction award for what are now called the Canadian Screen Awards. That year Villeneuve also collaborated with Gyllenhaal on his first English-language American film Prisoners which focused on the abduction of two girls in Pennsylvania and a father (Hugh Jackman) and a police detective (Gyllenhaal) who seek justice in different ways. A huge financial and critical success and as I said previously, the film that brought Villeneuve to my attention. I eventually realized this was an artist I needed to keep my eye on.
From that point forward Villeneuve had one artistic success after another.
Sicario (2015) starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin told the story of an FBI agent who tries to bring down the leader of a Mexican drug cartel.
Arrival (2016) starring Amy Adams was about a linguist who is enlisted by the U.S. Army to help them communicate with extraterrestrial aliens.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017) was the neo-noir sci-fi sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner featuring Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armas as well as the returns of Harrison Ford and Edward James Olmos. It was a critical success but not a financial success.
Dune (2021) is the latest film from Villeneuve. Featuring an all-star cast that includes such people as Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac and Zendaya and based on the 1965 novel by Frank Herbert that has been notoriously difficult for even skilled filmmakers to adapt to the screen. But Villeneuve succeeds with a film that many critics call a visual feast, huge in scope and ambition and an astonishing artistic achievement. Other critics have called it slow, grim and boring so I will just have to watch it myself, but I’m excited to do so when it comes out in theatres and HBO Max. Warner Bros. and Villeneuve are also planning to make Dune into a trilogy, with the first two films based on the first novel and the third film based on Dune Messiah, and Villeneuve is also directing the pilot of the HBO Max spin-off series Dune: The Sisterhood, which will focus on the Bene Gesserit (an organization of women in the Dune universe) and serve as a prequel to the film trilogy. WB clearly has high hopes for this series and I am looking forward to seeing what Villeneuve does with it, as well as seeing what he does with all his future films.