French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve debuted as a filmmaker in 1998. His early films were made in French for Canadian productions. His first few films didn’t garner him much acclaim. But films like Sicario (2005), Prisoners (2013) and Arrival (2016) made for Hollywood productions got him into the spotlight as one of the prominent directors of world cinema. In due course of time, his films not only proved to be huge box-office successes but were also critically appreciated. His films have won awards at some of the major film festivals around the world such as Berlin, Venice, Toronto. At present, he has earned a reputation that has placed him in the ranks of contemporary masters of world cinema.
In an interview with the Toronto Film Critics Association, Villeneuve expresses his philosophy towards filmmaking, ‘In order to tell a story, I need to have a deep connection with it from a very intimate point of view. It’s always the goal as a filmmaker to try and create an artistic object that will be singular; that will have some freshness. We don’t necessarily need new movies, but we need connection. We need relationships, we need to communicate together, and cinema is such a powerful medium to do that’.
Here is every Denis Villeneuve film ranked:
10. August 32nd on Earth (1998)
Villeneuve’s debut narrates the tale of a photo model Simone Prévost (Pascale Bussières) who escapes a car accident on the highway and later decides to conceive a baby with her best friend Philippe (Alexis Martin). Though the proposal seems odd to Philippe, he agrees reluctantly. He brings forward a condition that he wants to get intimate with Simone in a faraway desert region. As a result, both of them leave Montréal on a 24-hour round-trip to Salt Lake City to find a suitable spot.
Villeneuve builds up the drama by providing Simone and Philippe with contrasting characters. He cleverly infuses humour and comic elements into the scenes to bring a kind of romantic realism to the narrative. The casting of the film also plays a major role in engaging our attention. (reads clunky) Alexis Martin as Philippe with his sparkling and baffling personality adds wittiness to the story. Whereas, Bussières as a determined woman dealing with a trauma delivers a fascinating and engrossing performance.
9. Maelstrom (2000)
The protagonist Bibiane (Marie-Josée Croze) is a rich part-time model and the film follows her plight after she has had a traumatic abortion. The incident makes her question the seeming perfectness of her life. To overcome her grief, she takes refuge in drugs. On a fateful night under the influence of substance abuse, she gets embroiled in a hit-and-run accident. She learns the next day that the man had died from the accident. Plagued by the guilt she musters the courage to attend the funeral. As a coincidence, she comes across the son of the deceased Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verreault). Both get close to each other and a romantic relationship develops. But ‘will Bibiane ever confess her crime to Evian’ forms the crux of the drama.
Maelstrom is a black comedy told from the perspective of a fish whose head has been chopped off. The film attempts to explore the quirkiness of fate and the meaningless of life. Throughout the narrative, Villeneuve is not judgemental about Bibiane’s lack of morality. He rather digs into the relatedness between birth and death and delves into the consequences when individuals don’t take responsibility for their misdeeds.
8. Polytechnique (2009)
Polytechnique is inspired by a true incident that occurred on the 6th of December 1989 in Montreal. A young man walks into Montreal’s École Polytechnique and shoots twenty-eight people, killing fourteen of them, before turning his gun on himself. Villeneuve fictionalized the incident and developed his screenplay on the incident to explore different perspectives on gender, society and everyday life.
The film is narrated from the point of view of three individuals — the shooter (Maxim Gaudette), Val (Karine Vanasse) and Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau). Villeneuve and his cinematographer Pierre Gill use long shots to create an immersive experience for the viewer to participate in the mayhem. The characters in the film are reserved, inarticulate and mired in their own ordinariness. However, Villeneuve refrains from examining the subject of the film from a broader socio-political context and concentrates only on the murderous event and its consequences. With his third outing, Villeneuve developed a unique style in direction and camera movement that kept getting better with his subsequent films.
7. Sicario (2015)
In Sicario, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) plays the role of an FBI agent who is assigned by the government task force to help a team of CIA officers in a war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico. In this risky mission, she is accompanied by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and lawyer turned assassin Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro).
Through this film, Villeneuve questions the value of ethics involved with the duty of individuals responsible to protect the law. In their attempt to balance themselves unsteadily on the thin line of justice and revenge, the characters deviate from their moral grounds. Cinematography by Roger Deakins gives the film earthiness and texture, allowing the viewer to feel both allured and surprised, much like the protagonist Kate. All the characters surrender to their roles, performing them with grit and conviction.
6. Dune Part One (2021)
Based on a science fiction novel by Frank Herbert, Dune Part One is the tale of the son of a noble family, the ducal heir of House Atreides, Paul (Timothée Chalamet) who is given the responsibility to protect the most vital element in the galaxy. It is the 10th highest-grossing film of 2021 and one of the most technically accomplished works in Villeneuve’s oeuvre as a filmmaker.
Villeneuve treats this science genre film with his own signature style and emphasizes more on the individual’s expressions and body language. The treatment of the film focuses more on the emotional turmoil undergone by various characters and doesn’t limit itself to showcasing the extravagant special effects. Along with Australian cinematographer Grieg Fraser, Villeneuve creates awe-inspiring visuals like the sandscapes of Arrakis, massive spaceship explosions, and humongous battle sequences. Hans Zimmer’s background score works in tandem to uplift the mood of the film and adds a futuristic dimension to the scenes.
5. Enemy (2013)
Villeneuve wrote the screenplay of Enemy with Javier Gullon, based on the novel by Jose Saramago titled The Double. Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a college teacher going through the daily grind of a history professor working at a college in Toronto. The dramatic twist in the narrative arrives when he discovers that he has a doppelganger named Anthony Claire, who earns his livelihood as an actor. As Adam gets more and more involved with Anthony the peaceful equilibrium of his life gets disrupted with psychologically disturbing consequences.
Villeneuve had designed the narrative in the form of a puzzle that pulls the viewers into its intricate and perplexing turn of events. The film builds suspense with a series of twists, each of which builds upon the next and keeps us intrigued. The climax alters the viewer’s perception and defies viewer’s expectations. The sound design of the film plays a key role in evoking the eerie and suspenseful ambience of the film.
4. Incendies (2010)
Incendies is one of the best cinematic adaptations in Villeneuve’s oeuvre as a filmmaker. The play written by the Lebanese-Canadian writer Wajdi Mouawad achieves an acme of artistic perfection in the hands of Villeneuve and his co-writer Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne. After the death of their mother Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), two siblings Jeanne Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette) embark on a journey to fulfil the last wish of the deceased soul. Bitter reality and dark truths are revealed that question the buried pain and angst of a bygone time stained with blood and atrocity.
The narrative of the film follows a non-linear pattern and in a serious tone unravels the terrible events suffered by the heroic protagonist. The treatment of the film progresses in an understated and subtle manner which enables viewers to relate to the raw and genuine emotions of the situations.
3. Prisoners (2013)
In Prisoners, when Keller Dover‘s (Hugh Jackman) daughter Eliza (Zoe Soul) and her friend Joy (Kyla-Drew Simmons) go missing, his world turns upside down. As Keller presumes that the police investigation is a botched up ordeal he takes matters into his own hands. The film is a collage of multiple genres such as child abduction, police procedural, religious dogmatism and revenge drama. The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski is filled with multi-layered characters and embraces their personal struggles with as much passion as it portrays the manifestations of the social inequities that are an intrinsic part of their existence.
With Prisoners, Villeneuve began his first collaboration with Roger Deakins and exhibited a wide spectrum of light and shadows to penetrate into the mind of the characters. The precise framing of scenes effortlessly knits into the emotional fabric of the film. Villeneuve demonstrates maturity and dexterity in handling the script and the actors, bringing out the complexity of situations where individuals are trapped in a world of deceit and immoral acts.
2. Arrival (2016)
With Arrival, Villeneuve enters into the mysterious territory of science fiction. Based on a short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival raises complex questions about humanity and existence. The screenplay adapted by Eric Heisserer delves into meditative stretches that are wide open to interpretations and unravels many sombre conversations on the subjects of science, truth, human condition and memory.
Amy Adams in the role of the linguist, Louise Banks, delivers a rich and organic performance that elevates above the script and adds spiritual weight to her role. Bradford Young’s spellbinding cinematography complements the visual effects and production design of the film. Crafting a world of its own, Arrival creates a mystifying experience for the viewer. Villeneuve allows every scene to unfold at its own pace; he meticulously uses the tool of editing to evoke emotion as well as balance up the rhythm. The background score by the late Icelandic musician Jóhann Jóhannsson helps accentuate the eerie and sombre mood of the film.
1. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
It took almost 35 years for a filmmaker to muster the courage and conviction to make a sequel to Ridley Scott’s iconic noir sci-fi classic Blade Runner (1982). In Blade Runner 2049 Ryan Gosling plays the role of Agent K, a Blade Runner, assigned with the task to track down and retire replicants. Agent K’s mission is similar to what Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) did in the prequel.
Villeneuve brilliantly blends sci-fi and neo-noir genres with such an effect that is refreshingly diverse in its treatment and form. He constructs each of the scenes with an alluring grandeur that creates a hypnotic affect. Benjamin Wallfisc and Hans Zimmer’s background score is judiciously used to kindle the unique vision of a bleak cyberized future. Besides the directorial acumen, the film hugely benefits from its visuals captured by Roger Deakins that blend naturally with the neon-lit futuristic settings and accentuate the magnanimity of the milieu.
With each of his films, Villeneuve has dabbled across genres with aplomb. The thematic concern, as well as the genre conventions of each of his films, are unique in terms of storytelling and aesthetic choices. One of the reasons behind such engrossing projects is his fruitful teamwork with various technical collaborators and writers. Villeneuve’s filmography is proof that an Academy award for the director is only a matter of time.
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.