If you’re big into the genre of science fiction films, you couldn’t miss the name, Denis Villeneuve. He is a four-time Canadian Screen Award-winning director with films like Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Arrival (2016), Polytechnique (2009), Dune (2021), etc., under his umbrella.
Denis Villeneuve’s name goes on top with all the A-list Hollywood directors like Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, etc. However, he hasn’t just remained a big name in Hollywood but is a favorite of the worldwide audience along with being critically acclaimed worldwide too.
Villeneuve began his film-making career making short films and going 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. He also bagged the Academy Award for Best Director for Arrival (2016).
‘Dune’, Villeneuve’s latest release based on a novel by Frank Herbert has been the talk for quite a while now. The novel by Herbert, by the same name, has been a crowd favorite from the time it came out which meant that Villeneuve had big shoes to fill. It is needless to say that Villeneuve lived up to the expectations of the Dune fans, along with winning the acclaim of the world.
It premiered at the 78th Venice International Film Festival. It received huge critical acclaim along with being a box office success as everyone loves Villeneuve and on top of that, they get to see Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya on screen together, being accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s cinematic score.
The 2021 release is the first of the two-part Dune series by Villeneuve and it is needless to say that the world is eagerly waiting for the second part which is due in 2023.
Denis Villeneuve is someone who makes his movies for all types of audiences. His minimalistic, subtle yet exciting, and mysterious style of filmmaking is something everyone can get into, be it film critiques, filmmakers, film students, or someone who watches a film as just a medium of entertainment.
Denis Villeneuve has a way of making his audience confused, anxious and uncertain with his filmmaking techniques. He presents uncertainty and ambiguity gracefully through the cinematic techniques of music, cinematography, storytelling, editing, color, and his vision.
Denis Villeneuve, with each of his films, takes us on a revelatory journey with his characters. Villeneuve’s protagonist is thrown into a world filled with questions who are constantly seeking answers. It is a journey that the protagonist makes along with the viewer as each of ours’ eyes are blinded by Villeneuve’s vision.
In Villeneuve’s latest release, Dune (2021), Paul (played by Timothee Chalamet), and Lady Jessica (played by Rebecca Ferguson) 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.
In 2010’s ‘Incendies’, the protagonists, i.e. the two twins, Jeanne Marwan and Simone Marwan, go on a journey of discovering their family history, themselves while looking for answers to questions they don’t know the meaning of.
The protagonists in all of Villeneuve’s films, whether that be Jake Gyllenhal in ‘Enemy’ (2013), Ryan Gosling in ‘Blade Runner 2049’ (2017), or Timothee Chalamet in ‘Dune’ (2021), are at a pedestal of uncertainty and are on a quest for answers.
We have discussed earlier that Denis Villeneuve loves to create uncertainty or ambiguity for his protagonists and his audience. One of the key elements through which he achieves these is through cinematography.
He keeps in mind the traditional methods of framing like the rule of thirds and breaks them to create his own style with off-center framing and inverted camera angles. These cinematic techniques of Villeneuve help him build the ambiguity of his movies.
In Polytechnique (2009), as the protagonist Jean-Francois (played by Sebastien Huberdeau) is driving to visit his mother, his car is tracked with an inverted aerial shot. It signifies the enormous pressure he has on his mind.
Likewise, in Arrival (2016), Villeneuve uses his cinematic method to the extreme as when the protagonists go in front of the ‘aliens’, the camera tracks and inverts completely upside down hinting at the chaos and confusion everyone, including the protagonists, feels. Villeneuve here straight up flips the world in order to portray the chaos.
Another noteworthy trademark 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 Incendies (2010) a lot of empty space is seen behind Simone when he has been blindfolded. The blindfold leads him to become vulnerable with no sense of 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 commendable. He uses shadows and silhouettes to the extremes to keep the ambiguity of his films alive. The audience on one hand experiences vibrant colors and on the other experiences the mystery that Villeneuve portrays through the shadows that he uses.
Use Of Special Effects
Since Villeneuve is always blurring the lines between real and unreal, most of Villeneuve’s films need special effects, VFX, or CGI.
In Villeneuve’s latest release, 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 absolutely gorgeous, yet, enormous sandworms that we get to see on screen.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017), was nominated for an Oscar for VFX, which they later won. John Nelson, the VFX supervisor for the movie worked with his team for hours every day to create around 1,200 visual effects for the movie.
However, the part that actually made them win the Oscar was Villeneuve, Nelson, and his team being able to pull off the character of Rachael (played by Sean Young) and make her look like she hadn’t aged since the original movie.
Putting aside the exceptional and enormous CGI works of these films, 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.
Denis Villeneuve is known to keep wanting to blur the lines between reality and what is unreal, however, that is not the only line he blurs. He, when it comes to music and sound, blurs the lines between the two. One is not able to perceive whether it is diegetic sound or non-diegetic.
When designing sound, Villeneuve finds a spot between real and unreal sound to leave the audience in awe. In Arrival (2016), when the aliens vocalize, the sound is not unknown to human ears, however, the sound is almost like some deep underwater creature (still unknown).
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. In fact, the sound team of the movie went by Mangini’s theory that said that all of these sounds had to be sounds that related to our universe (Villeneuve uses this in all his films).
Similarly, in Blade Runner 2049 (2017), during the opening sequence, one is unable to guess whether the sound heard is that of a mechanical engine or of the exquisite score by Hans Zimmer. Thus, the line between diegetic and non-diegetic sound gets blurred. The audience stops perceiving what is what and instead gets immersed in the experience.
Signature Directorial Traits
As discussed earlier, Villeneuve’s signature directorial traits include the camera angles and framings he uses in almost all his films in order to enhance the ambiguity he so much desires.
When it comes to color, Villeneuve has the habit of either using an overwhelming single color to create unreal spaces or completely contrasting color palettes. However, Villeneuve does not usually use a single color theme throughout his films, rather switches from one to the other according to the theme.
Arrival (2016), is a film dominated by a dark and cold color tone, but Villeneuve switches the color tone to warm when showing the past sequences. The cool tones change to warm when showing signs of hope.
In Blade Runner 2049 (2017), a single dominant color for different scenes is used, i.e. the orange of Las Vegas, the white of the doctor’s lab, etc.
It is noteworthy that Villeneuve likes to linger his camera on day-to-day mundane things in order 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 in order to enhance the story and make the audience feel for the characters.
Villeneuve uses editing so as entrap the mind of the audience. The creation of non-linear timelines and collision montages (achieved by intercut edits) are almost always present in his films.
In Arrival (2016), the protagonist’s contact with the aliens gives her a clearer perspective on life but, each time, blurs the lines between reality, dream, flashback, and flash-forwards more than she anticipates.
In Prisoners, when the detective is questioning Alex about the missing girls, Villeneuve intercuts between the interrogation and the forensic team examining the car. Villeneuve here wants the audience to create images in their mind and join the dots between the interrogation and the examination by the forensic team.
Ambience Created In The Mind Of The Audience
Whenever I watch a Villeneuve film I say two things, one commenting on how beautiful everything looks and second on how confused I am and this is exactly what Denis Villeneuve wants. He wants to create uncertainty in the mind of the viewer and for them to search for answers.
We, as an audience, get immersed in the cinematic world that Villeneuve creates for us. Just as the protagonist is searching for answers, we start doing the same. Everything is beautiful, intriguing along with a touch of mystery added to it.
Denis Villeneuve strives to portray ambiguity and might I say that he has most definitely succeeded in creating ambiguity in the mind of the audience. The audience, along with the protagonist, lives a life full of questions and embarks on a journey with them as they begin searching for answers.
I feel like Denis Villeneuve is the type of director whose work almost everyone can get on board with. He creates for himself, the characters, and the audience. He makes sure everyone gets into it and he succeeds at it.
Villeneuve’s movies get you into a trance and teleport you to the world he creates. His movies have a continuous sense of mystery to them and that is probably why I enjoy watching his movies so much.
A particular aspect about Villeneuve’s films that I really admire is the way he uses color along with light and shadow. The way his films have such a bright yet dark aspect to them is quite contrary, but that is what makes his films stand out from the rest.
His ability to keep the audience confused, yet engaged is why I am all the more drawn towards him as a director and I am pretty sure that I am not the only one sailing on that boat. I just can’t get enough of the cinematic mystery that he can bring to the table.
About the Author
Shanaia Debasmita Mondal
She is a film student, enthusiast, and a student filmmaker currently in her third year of film school. She aims to leave relevant marks amidst the film community with her contribution.