Quickies: A Look at Denis Villeneuve's Early Work
Welcome to Quickies! Nick Issac's series highlighting the short films of notable directors.
Denis Villeneuve should be in the conversation for the best directors working today, a festival darling in the early 00’s with his French-Canadian features, Villeneuve has found great success in the English market. His aesthetic finds beauty in the mundane, ugly environments of everyday North American life. Personally selected by Ridley Scott to continue the Blade Runner franchise, his films have a way of speaking to the hubris of power, and often feature skeptics working against the restrictions of giant systems.
Villeneuve’s latest film, Arrival, is a perfect bridge between his earlier English works and his soon-to-be-released endeavors with hard sci-fi. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist expert, who is brought on board by the US Military to determine the intentions of an intergalactic race of aliens with a spaceship fleet parked around the world. Faced with obstruction from uncooperative world governments and the impatience of her country’s own officials, Louise embodies the fight against the system previously embodied by past lead actors in Villeneuve films such as Jake Gyllenhaal and Emily Blunt.
Abstaining from the nastiness of the real world for a heartbreaking, but hopeful possibility for the future, Arrival is less overt than Villeneuve’s past works, through its voice of reason against power that is practically muted. If one were to get an idea of where Villeneuve became compelled to tell this type of story, there is no better place to start than his early short films from the 2000s.
Villeneuve’s first fiction short, 120 Seconds To Get Elected oozes with an artist’s distaste for the political set. It centers around a wishy-washy politician, pledging thinly veiled dog whistles and elitist promises to adoring crowds, seemingly too deluded to understand the lies they are being told. Released at a time when the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper had just begun to peel back many popular social services within Canada, not to mention the height of the American Conservative Coalition lead by George W. Bush, 120 Seconds To Get Elected doesn’t feel out of place in today’s political environment and is every bit as timely.
Growing more artful in his rebukes, 2008’s Next Floor retains all of Villeneuve’s bite and shows his visual panache for perverting the mundane. If 120 Seconds To Get Elected showed an artist’s disdain, Next Floor is a dissident’s manifesto. A woman in a military style coat, a fat cat with a bourgeois wife, sycophantic and identical yes men, and a white industrialist gorge themselves while a person of color strapped to life support systems looks on. The host and the waiters work diligently; refilling cups, parading plate after plate of exotic delicacies from lions to rhinos, processed to the offal. The floorboards squeak and shimmy till they collapse, and the help staff rushes from floor to floor, rearranging the plates and keeping the mood with music and a beautiful chandelier. It’s a wonderful slice of absurdist comedy, and every frame is stuffed with meaning.
Villenueve has never been shy about delving into these serious topics and what he sees as abuses of power. His 2013 feature Prisoners which gained him mainstream attention for the first time, focuses on the machinations of survivors of abuse; just as well his 2015 narco thriller Sicario centers around the conflict of maintaining your integrity amongst the morally reprehensible. His French-Canadian work has focused on the questions of family legacy from crimes and atrocities, most notably 2009’s Polytechnique - a fictionalized account of one of the deadliest mass shootings in Canadian history. His work speaks to the moment it’s created, but also has context for future exploration. Expectations will be sky high for the next steps in his career, but it’s exciting to look at his early work and see the care and depth he presents.