It takes a unique type of artist to tap into the dark recesses of the human psyche and be able to transfer that mental complexity into a visual medium for others to experience, even sympathize with. Not everyone can handle the intensity that such territory brings; it consumes and dominates, tainting the mood of each film that includes this particular flavor of content matter, but French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve is no amateur to this challenge. It almost seems as if he embraces the task with open arms. Of the seventeen credits to his name, just six of those films have premiered on the big screen, and yet those projects have already managed to snag multiple academy award nominations as well as few wins.
The genre of film noir is notable for the fatalistic mood that lingers in the atmosphere throughout the piece, constantly threatening menace as the protagonist journeys through an external landscape as tumultuous and violent as their personal one. Villeneuve’s work is a staple of the noir genre, expertly intertwining the beauty of stillness and grimness. Villeneuve favors a broad expanse for his settings, which lend themselves well to the film’s overall cinematography. Shots of the world in which his characters traverse are used to establish the stakes and the imminent danger that’s always lurking just around the corner, lying in wait for the protagonist to slip and fall into the abyss of their own minds. When asked about his 2013 film Enemy, Villeneuve stated that “the landscape is part of the equation . . . it creates fear and paranoia” and ultimately provides that sense of oppression needed to drive the plot forward. Bleakness is also achieved through the use of lighting-particularly through the incorporation of shadows. Whether they’re obscuring a character’s face, a space or an object, Villeneuve is fond of the vagueness inherent to an entity like shadows, able to portrayal a visual divide, conflict, tension, all by masking something’s features. Villeneuve once said that “cinema is a tool to explore our shadows” and he couldn’t be more correct. Dismissing an abundance of special effects in the process, lighting is a simple way to bring to life the uneasiness written into the heavy storylines that this director does not shy away from.
Another quite noticeable element within Villeneuve’s films is the tortured hero. When we are first introduced to these characters, we are immediately presented with a flawed or broken version of them, already battling with demons unbeknownst to us. It doesn’t take us long to start to sympathize with the story’s leads, even if we are ignorant as to what they are suffering from. Villeneuve’s ability to harness the frail stability of a human being’s mental state is remarkable, using close-up after close-up to provide the audience with a clear picture of just how troubled these individuals are. The plot lines themselves are an important piece in this formula as well, seeing as Villeneuve’s trademark hero could not seamlessly fit into tales of another nature. Lightheartedness and even hopefulness is often out of reach, which provides our heroes with nothing else but to succumb to themselves, retreat into their own pasts and insecurities. That being said, similar to Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott and Guillermo Del Toro, Villeneuve demands much from his leading actors. His work and directional style requires them to use more of their bodies than they might in other roles. Pain, apprehension, angst burns in their eyes as brightly as it does in the flex of their jaw or the clasping and unclasping of a fist. The heroes’ physical appearance is indicative of the current state of their mental health. And it’s all subtle-a brief jab by their co-worker about that same worn out t-shirt, the sleepless purple rings encircling their bloodshot eyes, unkempt hair. Each protagonist has a predisposition for an unhealthy coping mechanism for which they blindly stumble back to when the pressure and uncertainty of their world proves too much for them to handle-whether it’s lashing out violently (Detective Loki, Prisoners), cigarettes and silent tears (Agent Kate Macer, Sicario), withdrawing into painful memories and allowing that misery to continue to hurt them (Professor Louise Banks, Arrival), valuing loneliness and isolation (Officer K, Blade Runner 2049) or listening to that subconscious voice that isn’t necessarily working in our best interest (Adam Bell, Enemy). At this point, we must recognize the brilliance of the actors who Villeneuve trusts to bring his visions to life; a lot of effort, strength and discipline must be drawn on in order to enter such a dark place for a lengthy duration of time when shooting a movie. Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams have proven themselves capable of doing justice to the tragic hero, having embraced and internalized their flaws in a number of previous films.
One point worth mentioning, is the representation of men and women in Villeneuve’s films. Both are equally tortured. Both are strong-willed and stubborn, eager to do their jobs and bring the community they’re apart of-as well as themselves-a long-overdue sense of peace. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt’s characters of a linguistic professor and an FBI agent respectively, come from vastly different worlds but they are both searching for that calling, some sort of signal that they’re on the right path, even if all the signs they’ve been given tell them otherwise. Arguably, these two characters are far more entertaining than their male counterparts, seeing as both actresses are able to summon forth a deeper sense of rawness. Though they both find themselves caught up in a ploy far bigger than what was initially asked of them, they persevere, trading their own sanity and happiness to do so. Villeneuve later stated: “Sometimes you have compulsions that you can’t control coming from the subconscious . . . they are the dictator inside ourselves.” Living virtuously is a difficult thing to achieve, and it’s even harder to do when that personal war raging on inside you wants nothing more than to render you weak. That is exactly what Villeneuve raises to our attention.
Villeneuve’s films embrace violence as well, integrating blood and gore as a strategy to leave audiences feeling haunted and slightly disturbed. As the plot progresses, the search for the truth leads to a heart-stopping climax, which he smartly places near the end of the piece.Denis has made it known that he uses violence meaningfully, choosing to include it in certain scenes in order to show the impact it has on its victims. Violence is a natural part of our world, and we encounter it in all walks of life. Villeneuve’s use of it is graphic at times but it is that highly controlled, detailed gore which reminds the audience to realize how traumatic life can be. When discussing his film 2015 Sicario, Villeneuve said that violence was cyclical. Violence is ultimately given an existence of its own, functioning as a higher force that directs and compels his heroes to either carry on or surrender.
Humanity is complex; peeling back the layers of doubt, trauma, hurt, grief and disbelief that have come together to cage in our best selves is a dreary business. A business that few can handle with such tenderness as Villeneuve. Though a handful of his films have broken through to the highest peaks of Hollywood, with A-listers lending their talent and support, Denis Villeneuve remains an underappreciated filmmaker of our day. On the surface, his films are moody, even challenging to watch at times due to the controversial content matter he is unafraid to tackle. But that very thing is what sets him apart from others in the industry. Under the layers of dark color and stillness, silence and intrigue, Villeneuve provides viewers with a platform for conversation and debate. It seems that despite the large amounts of advocacy for mental illnesses and social tolerance, many times we are unwilling or hesitant to touch on such contentious subjects.
We need to deal with our shadows no matter what form they come in, and film is a brilliant way to start doing so, whether alone or in the company of others. Movies are a medium that is able to transcend borders and bring people together, increase understanding and shed light on what needs to be brought forth in to the world. Denis Villeneuve does that with his work, as well as providing audiences with entertainment and mystery.
It is artists like Villeneuve that make me proud to be a Canadian and give me that first inkling of courage-courage by association-to accept myself and all my broken shards, and to start questioning whether the doubts I have about myself, about the world, about life, are fair.
by Kacy Hogg
Kacy is an English Literature student living in the Great White North (no not Winterfell unfortunately), but Canada. She’s deeply in love with popcorn, French fries and chicken mcnuggets. When’s she’s not chugging back on tea, you can most likely find her at the cinema or tucked away in the corner of a bookstore. Her favorite films include the Harry Potter series, Cinderella, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Hangover, Casino Royale and Lady Bird. She’s also an avid binge-watcher of Game of Thrones and the Walking Dead. You can follow her on Twitter here: @KacHogg95
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