From Spiders to Sandworms: A Guide to the Cinema of Denis Villeneuve

How does the French-Canadian director of "Dune" terrify, thrill, and inspire audiences? Let us count the ways, from 1998 to now.

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When I first saw director Denis Villeneuve’s diabolically disturbing kidnapping thriller Prisoners in 2013, its images became forever lodged in my psyche. I wanted to shake them—especially the sight of Paul Dano’s bludgeoned face, so swollen that he barely looked human—but that was impossible. I was too disgusted and fascinated by what I had just seen.

At first, I wondered, “What kind of person would want to make this movie?” Then I had a revelation: If Prisoners had enraged me so passionately, it had done something right. I hated it so much that I almost loved it, which convinced me that I might one day see a Villeneuve film that I would adore unequivocally.

Three years later, it happened. Would it be hyperbolic to say that Arrival, Villeneuve’s film about a linguist communicating with a race of graceful, many-legged aliens, changed my life? Probably, but just as Prisoners haunted my nightmares, Arrival haunted my dreams.

Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel “Dune” comes to life again on film in Denis Villeneuve’s new movie adaptation. ™ & © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

While the French-Canadian Villeneuve trained in the world of Québécois documentaries, he has consistently refused to be confined by genre. Arrival fans might be startled by his oddball romantic comedies, just as viewers of his school-shooting drama Polytechnique probably never expected him to unleash pure cinematic pleasure with Blade Runner 2049.

With Dune, the first chapter in a planned two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert’s revered 1965 sci-fi novel, Villeneuve has reinvented himself yet again—and not, in my opinion, particularly successfully. Yet for all its shortcomings, Dune is a reminder of the restlessness that has made him one of the most mesmerizing filmmakers alive.

Unlike his idol, Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan, Villeneuve has never been a brand. He is a crafty chameleon, a director obsessed less with recurring images or themes than the mutability of film itself. If writing about his work has taught me anything, it’s that to not know him is to know him perfectly well.

What follows is a Villeneuve primer—a guide to his journey from the ebullience of August 32nd on Earth to the solemnity of Dune. May it inspire you to enter the ever-shifting worlds he imagines for the screen:

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Pascale Bussières in “August 32nd on Earth.” Photo: IMDb
August 32nd on Earth (1998)

Simone (Pascale Bussières) has a question for her best friend, Philippe (Alexis Martin): Would he like to have sex with her so she can have a baby? Philippe agrees, but on the condition that he will only make love to her in a desert. Shortly after the pact is made, they are on a flight to Utah.

August 32nd on Earth stems from Villeneuve’s delight in poking fun at posh Canadians. Both Simone and Philippe have money—she’s a model—and it has insulated them. They’re irresistible targets for Villeneuve, who cheekily strands them outside Salt Lake City with a dead body that rudely interrupts their erotic sojourn.

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A director who looks down on their characters risks creating a sense of obnoxious disconnect, but August 32nd on Earth has deep affection for Simone and Philippe in all their naiveté and vanity. They’re on the precipice of romance, and Villeneuve accomplishes something that few filmmakers can: He convinces us that two people onscreen desperately need to be together.

The ending of August 32nd on Earth is profoundly bizarre. Some might call it bleak or existential, but I don’t think those labels fit any of Villeneuve’s films. With impish generosity of spirit, he takes us on a sweet and silly journey with two beautiful people, earning not only bafflement, but gratitude.

Available on Amazon Prime/MUBI

Maelström (2000)

In Maelström, Bibi Champagne (Marie-Josée Croze), a 25-year-old businesswoman, gets an abortion, is fired from her job, fatally strikes a Norwegian fishmonger with her car and falls in love with his son, Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verreault). Also, the film is a comedy. I think.

While humor is scarce in Villeneuve’s recent films—by my count, Blade Runner 2049 and Dune have one joke apiece—Maelström is downright playful. Bibi’s tribulations are troubling, but Villeneuve undercuts her desperation from the first scene by having a talking fish (voiced with gravelly gusto by Pierre Lebeau) narrate her life.

Like Garth Jennings’ 2005 film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Maelström is a filmic assault on meaning and pretentiousness. It insists that Bibi and Evian should defy the melodrama that fills their lives by simply chilling and enjoying their improbable romance, a command Villeneuve clearly wants the audience to follow.

Amazingly, Maelström won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Cinematography at the Genie Awards, Canada’s version of the Oscars at the time. Would the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of today dare pick a film so brazenly unusual? Only when fish speak.

Available free on YouTube on the cinema and sude channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQcAprudjXU.

Polytechnique (2009)

Polytechnique begins with college students making copies at a row of xerox machines, which whirr and groan so loudly that the distant blare of alarms is lost in the cacophony. Then bullets come bursting out of nowhere. We don’t see the shooter, but we do see a young woman clutching her bloodstained ear. Then the screen goes black.

On December 6, 1989, a 25-year-old man used a semi-automatic rifle to kill 14 women at Montreal’s Polytechnique engineering school. An avowed misogynist, he deliberately targeted female engineering students, hence the inscription on a sign at a memorial park honoring the victims: “This park is named in the memory of 14 women assassinated in an antifeminist attack.”

While Polytechnique is based on firsthand accounts, Villeneuve uses fictionalized characters, including Valérie (Karine Vanasse), a student pursuing a mechanical engineering internship, and her hapless classmate, Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau). He also devotes egregious screen time to the perspective of The Killer (Maxim Gaudette), a decision that could be seen as insulting to the survivors.

I’m not convinced that making films about school shootings is ethical, but Polytechnique is undeniably moving, especially in the scenes that reveal Valérie’s survival. By the end of the film, she also learns that she is pregnant. “If I have a boy, I’ll teach him to love,” she says. “If I have a girl, I’ll tell her the world is hers.”

Polytechnique, which was shot in black and white, is almost powerful enough to make you overlook the fact that its moral conviction doesn’t match its technical sophistication. But there’s no hiding the fact that the film omits the most disturbing truth about the real-life murderer: His weapon was purchased legally.

Available free on Tubi.

Villeneuve’s 2010 “Incendies.” Photo: IMDb
Incendies (2010)

In August 32nd on Earth, Maelström and Polytechnique, Villeneuve provoked his audiences with frank depictions of sex and violence. Yet there was one taboo topic he had avoided—religion, an oversight that he rectified with Incendies, an adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s 2003 play.

Incendies follows Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), two Canadian twins who travel to an unnamed Middle Eastern country—likely Lebanon—at the behest of their dead mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal). Nawal wanted them to locate their missing father and brother, but the quest leads to a lurid revelation that undermines their beliefs about their lineage.

Villeneuve includes many flashbacks to a civil war between Christians and Muslims in Nawal’s homeland. We learn that Nawal, a Christian, fell in love with a Muslim man, but the film’s ideas about faith and romance never quite cohere. It’s more notable for the visceral impact of its most brutal scenes, especially a desert firefight seen from the inside of a bus.

Like Maelström and Polytechnique, Incendies won in several major categories at the Genie Awards. It also earned a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, but it’s not the best representation of Villeneuve’s early work. Strip away all the blood and passion and it’s basically a familial soap opera, albeit one that leaves an impressively nauseating chill in the air.

Available on multiple platforms.

Enemy (2013)

If you Google “Enemy movie ending explained,” you get 10,800,000 results. That gives some indication of how beguiling and maddening Villeneuve’s first collaboration with Jake Gyllenhaal can be.

Based on a 2002 novel by José Saramago, Enemy stars Gyllenhaal as Adam Bell, a history teacher. He leads a life of mopey isolation, which is promptly shattered when he discovers that he has a doppelgänger, a barely successful actor named Anthony Claire.

Despite Nicolas Bolduc’s poetically flaxen cinematography, Enemy feels like a shapeless, aimless prelude to Richard Ayoade’s The Double, a comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg in a devilish dual role. Until, that is, a series of scene-stealing spiders show up, beginning what became Villeneuve’s impassioned love affair with creepy crawlies. 

In the most memorable scene in Enemy, Villeneuve unleashes an arachnid the size of a skyscraper. Not weirded out yet? Wait until the film gets to what I heard one viewer call “the spider strip club,” which proves that even mediocre Villeneuve films can slip their hairy tentacles under your skin and into your psyche.

Available on Showtime Anytime and other platforms.

Hugh Jackman in “Prisoners.” Photo: IMDb
Prisoners (2013)

“They only cried when I left them,” whimpers Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Those words obsess Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), who is convinced that Alex abducted his daughter and her friend. The police are convinced that Alex is innocent, so Keller captures him, determined to torture him until he confesses.

When I first saw Prisoners, I dismissed it as arty torture porn—an offshoot of the Saw franchise classed up by the sleek cinematography of Roger Deakins, who would later win an Oscar for his work with Villeneuve on Blade Runner 2049. Now I’m not so sure.

Although the film is set in Pennsylvania, Keller’s barbarism could be seen as a metaphor for the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” After all, there’s something freakishly fitting about the idea of torture in the heartland, rather than Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib.

If you don’t care about post-9/11 allegories, consider watching Prisoners for Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as Detective Loki, a cop who believes Keller. As Jackman roars and raves, Gyllenhaal clamps down with ferocity, offering an indelible portrait of quiet professionalism. He’s the best reason to see this queasily unforgettable film.

Sicario (2015)

FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is traumatized by the murder of two colleagues by a Mexican drug cartel. Hungry for vengeance, she teams with a pair of duplicitous operatives, Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), but their shaky moral codes cruelly test her commitment to the cause.

That’s the premise of Sicario, which was written by Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water). He’s an expert at creating gruff, violent and untrustworthy characters, but his insistence on riding on the rough side of American cinema is creepily fetishistic in Sicario, which New York Times film critic A.O. Scott aptly dismissed as “another violent movie.”

“You’re like a little girl when you’re scared,” Alejandro taunts Kate. What is this, a Fifty Shades of Grey spinoff? Sicario presents itself as a bitter commentary on the futility of the war on drugs, but it’s too unintentionally silly to earn its pretensions. It’s serious and seriously schlocky.

Available on multiple platforms.

Arrival (2016)

There are 12 spaceships. Egg-shaped, elephant gray and piloted by benevolent, insect-like beings called Heptapods, they hover above the Earth, waiting. But for what? That’s what Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is tasked with finding out when she arrives at a verdant field in Montana where one of the ships has halted.

When Arrival was released, the political chaos onscreen mirrored the political chaos in America. I first saw it the week that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, and the irrational fear that the 12 ships inspire in the film—which notably riles up an anti-government conspiracy theorists—echoed Trump’s racist scaremongering about Mexican immigrants.

Yet to praise Arrival’s relevance is to diminish its brilliance. Adapting a short story by Ted Chiang, Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer both reflected and transcended the moment, using the threat of an alien invasion as a Trojan Horse to smuggle revelatory ideas about language, grief and motherhood into multiplexes.

At the heart of that wondrous gambit is Adams, who holds the screen with serenity. Like Jake Gyllenhaal in Prisoners, she conveys an inner life through stillness—somehow, her impassive face reveals a history of achievement, love and loss.

Or is it a history yet to come? With shivery skill, Arrival constructs a plot twist that reframes Louise’s life. It manipulates time, but not for the sake of it. Every choice made by Adams, Villeneuve and Heisserer draws us deeper into Louise’s soul, a universe as vast and mysterious as the Heptapods’ domain.

Available on Hulu, Amazon Prime, Paramount+ and other platforms.

Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armo in “Blade Runner 2049.” Photo: IMDb
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

There’s a telling scene in Blade Runner 2049 in which former detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) roughly asks android inventor Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), “You don’t have children…do you?” Flashing a smile rich with arrogance, Wallace replies, “Oh, I have millions.”

In a sense, so does Ridley Scott, who directed Blade Runner (1982), which was based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The film, about Deckard’s hunt for androids called Replicants, defined the cyberpunk genre, influencing everything from The Matrix to Kathryn Bigelow’s pre-apocalyptic love story Strange Days.

Undaunted by that legacy, Hampton Fancher and Michael Green wrote a screenplay centered on K (Ryan Gosling), a Replicant programmed to assassinate his own kind. He’s assigned to kill the first Replicant child, but he defies his destiny by seeking a father figure in Deckard and a lover in Joi (Ana de Armas), a hologram who may or may not have a heart.

While 2049 lacks the exquisitely rugged textures of Scott’s film, it is finer because it cares as much about the souls of its characters as it does about the dreamily bleak world around them, especially where K and Joi are concerned.

When Joi asks K to perform a procedure that will make her mortal, he protests that she could be killed. “Yes,” she says, quavering. “Like a real girl.” Yet she is real, just like everything else in this exquisitely romantic epic.  

Available on HBO Max and other platforms.

“Dune”: Don’t look back. It might be gaining on you. ™ & © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Dune (2020)

Recently, the British film critic John Bleasdale threw some red meat to his Twitter followers when he wrote, “Quentin Tarantino really needed a big flop in his career. A 1941 or New York, New York. Something to take the winds out of his sails and force a rethink. Discuss.”

I thought about Bleasdale after seeing Dune. Villeneuve can be bullish—when Warner Bros. announced that Dune would debut simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, he raged in Variety that “the horse left the barn for the slaughterhouse”—but if any film can force him to rethink his career, it’s this one.

As a novel, Dune is a dense narrative sundae with layers of environmentalism, feminism and spirituality. David Lynch took a crack at it with his 1984 adaptation, but he speaks of that film as if it were as appetizing as the severed ear in Blue Velvet. For Villeneuve, who read the book when he was 14, the temptation to become the director who got Dune right was irresistible.

Timothée Chalamet stars in Villeneuve’s version as Paul Atreides, a duke’s son who treks into the wilderness of the sandworm-covered planet Arrakis, a journey at once grandiose and inert. Thanks to mechanically staged scenes and an overabundance of Chalamet sitting in a bedroom while a computer recites facts about Arrakis, Dune becomes something I thought I’d never see: a dull Villeneuve film.

I confess myself baffled by the rapturous responses to Dune, which make me wonder whether Villeneuve’s fame has colored perceptions of his work. Lest we forget, some movie buffs talk about Blade Runner 2049 as if it were a combination of the Bible, Quran, Torah and an ice cream sandwich, which suggests that admiration has calcified into ideology.

Maybe it is time for a rethink for both the filmmaker and the fans. That’s okay, because for an artist, evolution is always possible. Denis Villeneuve taught me that. 

About the author

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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