With Blade Runner 2049 enjoying a huge amount of buzz, it feels like a perfectly apt time to discuss the man behind the camera, Denis Villeneuve.
The French-Canadian auteur began his filmmaking career in the late 80s, winning awards for his shorts, but really caught eyes in 2001 when Maelstrom hit the festival circuit. From there, the man has gone from strength to strength.
When Incendies arrived in 2010, Villeneuve earned his first Academy Award nomination with a Best Foreign Language nod. A hit among insiders, the film went on to receive huge praise and earned its director a spot on Variety’s list of 10 directors to watch in 2011. But it was with the release of 2013’s Prisoners that earned him mainstream success; the potent thriller was popular with critics and audiences around the world.
Villeneuve’s catalogue may still be fairly small at this point in time, but the man has produced nothing but quality since he began. Each of the films listed below range between good and incredible, which is extremely rare to say in this day in age. I might be extremely biased as he is currently my favourite working director, but I will argue that he could be one of, if not the, best filmmakers working today.
He has eight films in his catalogue, and I suggest seeing all of them. However, while we eagerly await his next project, come with us as we rank the master’s solid work so far:
8: August 32nd on Earth (1998)
It’s the first feature for the director and you can already see traits of what will become signature moves in the near future. August 32nd on Earth offers up a deep, complex and emotional story that sometimes gets almost otherworldly with its framing and structure. Following a car crash, Simone (Pascale Bussières) makes some drastic changes in her life and forces her friend to follow her on a journey of self discovery. From the bizarre tracking of time to the almost alien locations where pivotal scenes are set, Villeneuve does an excellent job transferring Simone’s refusal to conform to a normal life to the audience.
This drama is clearly shackled by budget constraints and a director who is still finding his voice, but it is a very entertaining watch nevertheless. Even with Villeneuve on a learning curb, he manages to craft a complex personal-journey film with layered emotional conflicts and plenty of food for thought. August 32nd on Earth, far more light-hearted than anything else that on this list, is a great first feature and a suitable opener for Villeneuve newcomers; one that foreshadows techniques he’ll come to master in his later work.
7: Prisoners (2013)
Prisoners is considered by many to be his first real mainstream hit, however, I would suggest that this one has the least amount of “Villeneuve-isms” in it. Prisoners is a brutal look into the lives of two suburban families and the darkness they need to embrace following the abduction of their children. It is arguably Hugh Jackman’s best performance and Jake Gyllenhaal is very good as the lead police detective, but it lacks that pop that Villeneuve is known for.
It is a very tense, extremely well shot (his first collaboration with 13-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins) picture with some great performances. However, the twist just doesn’t feel as earned as his other films, and when you line up the man’s work, Prisoners stands out as a solid film that could have been directed by the likes of Jonathon Demme or David Fincher. It’s also the first time he was directing from a script he didn’t at least co-write. During a Reddit AMA, Villeneuve stated that the main challenge with coming over into Hollywood films was to protect his own identity as a filmmaker, and unfortunately, I don’t feel that Prisoners completely does him that justice.
6: Maelstrom (2000)
Early on in Maelstrom we are introduced to our narrator – a catfish on a chopping block. Plus, there’s an abortion scene with a very bizarre choice of music. Yes, out of all of the films on the list, this one is perhaps the strangest, and that’s honestly saying something!
Maelstrom is the story of a spoiled woman who accidentally kills a Norwegian fishmonger… and it somehow morphs into a love story. Yet, as odd as it sounds, this is the film where Villeneuve flexes some true brilliance. The film impresses not only on a technical level, with fantastic camera work and framing, but also with Villeneuve’s well crafted, almost symmetrical screenplay, which features a beginning that mirrors the end.
The core story itself may be simple and funny, but Villeneuve has a script that injects layers and meaning at every turn and amplifies it all with brilliant work behind the camera. It’s another strong film, even if it occasionally borders on the incoherent (I still am not quite sure what was going on with the fish motif, but the craziness is often inspired). By the end of Villeneuve’s sophomore feature, his strengths as a filmmaker are becoming very clear.
5: Enemy (2014)
If it weren’t for Maelstrom, Enemy probably would have been bestowed Villeneuve’s most bizarre film. Jake Gyllenhaal discovers an identical body double by chance, and it sends his world into complete disarray. Coming immediately after Prisoners, you can see Villeneuve regain his voice in this cerebral, surrealist story with a deep, over-arching spider motif that spans the entire journey.
Similar to Maelstrom with its non-linear storyline and surrealism, Enemy is inherently darker in every way, except for the yellow tinge that covers the city in all shots. Villeneuve says that his desire was to film an exploration of the subconscious. It’s an ambitious little thriller, offering audiences some serious work to truly understand what is going on, and even more work to understand exactly what it all means. It’s certainly not a casual Sunday afternoon movie.
The brilliance of Villeneuve and his storytelling ability is on full show here. He treats the audience intelligently, never revealing much of his hand, and leaves a lot to interpretation. It took me three sittings to finally settle on what my own was, but with each watch, you discover more and more about the characters in front of you.
It really is a fantastic film, and to be fair, the final shot of this film scared the crap out of me, providing Enemy with one more reason to never leave my psyche!
Continue to our Top Four Denis Villeneuve Films on the next page…