Into Denis Villeneuve’s Filmverse
“I think a good director is a good listener.”
— Denis Villeneuve
If you’re a science fiction film enthusiast, you couldn’t miss the name, Denis Villeneuve. He is a four-time Canadian Screen Award-winning director with films like Enemy (2013), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Dune (2021), etc., under his umbrella.
Villeneuve began his film-making career making short films and went on to win a youth film competition organized by Radio Canada. His feature film directorial debut was with the 1998 film August 32nd on Earth which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in the same year.
The glorious decades-spanning career of Québécois director Denis Villeneuve can be aptly described as a slow-burning firework. His journey began in French Canadian cinema with films such as August 32nd on Earth, Maelström and Polytechnique after studying the art at Université du Québec à Montréal. Villeneuve’s works gradually took to the international audience, beginning with the massively ambitious Incendies in 2010, and soon his career exploded with a big-name, bigger-budget Hollywood fare such as 2013’s Prisoners and in 2016 he bagged the Academy Award for Best Director for Arrival.
It’s clear that Denis Villeneuve has never compromised his filmmaking style. Villeneuve’s films can be recognized by their adherence to a set of characteristics such as a defined and thematically constructed colour palette, the dichotomy of strong-willed women and compromised men, experimental and ambient scores typically masterminded by Jóhann Jóhannsson, daring plot twists that challenges the audience, and finally the meticulous, patient and satisfying cinematography.
But before we dive deeper, we should understand how the experimental filmmaker found his style, and this video essay does just that-
When it comes to colour, Villeneuve has the habit of either using an overwhelming single colour to create unreal spaces or completely contrasting colour palettes. However, he does not usually use a single colour theme throughout his films, rather switches from one to the other according to the theme.
For instance, Maelström has undertones of nautical culture and folklore, particularly that of Scandinavia, and this theme of northern seas is explored not only through the montages of currents but through the film’s sharp, icy blue lighting.
Polytechnique was shot in black and white to avoid being exploitative. The muting of the colours lessened the intensity of the film’s gore and allowed for a nobler, more thoughtful and dignified approach to a story of such gravitas.
One of the most notable takeaways from Dune is its muted colour palette. The dryness of the environment and its scorching sun presumably bake away all colours. The climate of Arrakis is brutal and quickly obliterates the conception of romanticism in the desert. The colour and texture scream that this is a dangerous place where you likely won’t survive.
Villeneuve’s early films don’t incorporate the ambient scores of his Hollywood pictures but instead opt for thematically relevant use of popular songs and leitmotifs. His collaboration with Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson first occurred on the film Prisoners, the ambient, melancholic score of which played into the film’s themes of grief, mourning and despair that accompany the protagonists’ emotions that come with a missing child.
Villeneuve's films also constantly blur the line between reality and the unreal and this can be seen in his movie’s sound design as well- i.e. the line between music and sound. When designing sound, the filmmaker finds a spot between real and unreal sound to leave the audience astonished.
In Blade Runner 2049 (2017), during the opening sequence, one is unable to guess whether the sound heard is that of an engine or the exquisite score by Hans Zimmer. In Dune (2021)- the sounds that the worms make are blurred with the musical score of the film, one is unable to distinguish between the two.
“Making poetry with a camera - that's the essence of what I do.” — Denis Villeneuve
There is no doubt that Villeneuve’s movies are visual poetry. His films create uncertainty or ambiguity for both his protagonists and audience. One of the key elements that enable him to create that ambience is the cinematography. He keeps in mind the traditional methods of framing like the rule of thirds and breaks them to create his style with off-center framing and inverted camera angles. These cinematic techniques of Villeneuve help him build the ambiguity of his movies. Below is a shot from Polytchnique - the inverted camera shot pacing down the corridor intensifies the chaotic atmosphere of the film.
Another hallmark style of Villeneuve is his use of empty or negative space when the characters in the movie are going through a crisis. For example, in Arrival (2016) a lot of empty space is seen around the crew which creates a sense of vulnerability and anxiety about what is to come.
Villeneuve both literally and metaphorically keeps us in the dark with his storytelling and lighting. His use of light and shadow is praiseworthy. He uses shadows and silhouettes to the extremes to maintain the ambiguity of his films. The audience on one hand experiences vibrant colours, and on the other, the mystery that Villeneuve portrays through the shadows that he uses.
Strong Women and Morally-Compromised Men
“My movies are very often violent and dark, but there's a spectrum of light, and that light is coming from the women.” — Denis Villeneuve
This was a beautiful take that I read on Denis Villeneuve's filmmaking style, which makes a lot of sense. The women in his movies have clear and strong mindsets- be it Maelström’s very flawed character ‘Bibiane’ who is conscious and takes responsibility for her actions, she is strong-willed, fiercely independent and contrarian, or, ‘Kate’ in Sicario who is an idealistic FBI agent, and follows by-the-book moral code and wouldn’t stoop low to go against her beliefs and values.
All-in-all the women in Villeneuve's films have clear and firm personalities, unlike the men who are morally disillusioned.
Other Noteworthy Traits
What makes Denis Villeneuve's films unique is that the film is a revelatory journey for both the characters and the viewers. This does answer why his movies are slow-burners- we are uncovering the story along with the characters of the film.
In Dune (2021), Paul, and Lady Jessica are on an unknown planet seeking answers and finding a way to survive. The characters, along with us, have no idea as to what is going to happen next.
In Arrival (2016), it’s not just the protagonist who is looking for answers, but everyone present on screen is. The protagonist, though looking for answers to the unknown, also goes through a journey of self-discovery.
Most of Villeneuve’s films need special effects, VFX, or CGI. In Dune (2021), the sandworms created the need for using VFX. Most of the film was shot on location in the deserts of the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Paul Lambert, a digital effects supervisor, swapped his green screens for brown screens and called it the ‘sandscreen’. The ‘sandscreen’ helped the team to shoot on location and create the magnificent and gigantic sandworms that we see on screen.
You can read the following article and get an idea about how the sandworms and Ornithopters were made:
Putting aside the exceptional and enormous CGI works, Villeneuve uses CGI and special effects subtly as well. Especially in films like Sicario (2015), where most of the background and action scenes were completely CGI. However, these go unnoticed to the common eye and that is what makes special effects in Villeneuve’s films so great.
It is noteworthy that Villeneuve likes to linger his camera on day-to-day mundane things to enhance meaning out of them, be it a single shoe from Sicario (2015), peeled oranges in Polytechnique (2009), or a lighted torch in Incendies (2010). Villeneuve’s lingering camera on mundane details almost pays homage to Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘pillow shots’, which showed ordinary details in between a scene to make the story more impactful and make the audience feel for the characters.
Denis Villeneuve has proven himself why his name is taken along with the best directors of our time with his applause-worthy films. Each film may have repeated techniques but all of them are unique and masterpieces in their stead. With each movie, we have seen his vision evolve, his films becoming grander- all speaking volumes that, this is just the start of his lustrous filmmaking career.
Which of Denis Villeneuve’s films have you watched? Are you looking forward to Dune: part 2? Let us know in the comments.