Why this might not seem so easy

Violence takes on many forms, its brutal impact lingering in people and places for years and leaving psychological scars that are difficult to shake. In the films of Québécois director Denis Villeneuve, the threat of violence and its aftermath are often the catalyst for complex examinations of deeper social issues, power dynamics, identity and the human condition. 

Denis Villeneuve

Aside from a recurring interest in sci-fi with Arrival (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and the upcoming Dune, Villeneuve hasn’t stuck to a particular genre in his nine-film output to date. But he’s always worked with big ideas to reveal confronting reflections of reality. He cites Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as a huge influence on his visual style, and credits Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) as an early example of a “film crush”. The latter also led to Villeneuve’s fascination with the French New Wave thanks to an appearance by François Truffaut, and these two poles – the nouvelle vague and Spielberg – collided in Villeneuve’s feature debut, August 32nd on Earth (1998), in which two French Canadians take a spontaneous road trip to the salt flats in Utah. Not only are they literally aliens in a foreign land, but they get utterly out of their depth due to a failure in communication.

Such imposing terrain became typical of a director whose films are punctuated with aerial views of vast landscapes where humans appear like dots on the horizon. Deliberately paced establishing shots, silent close-ups and dynamic wide-angle views also predominate. In Villeneuve’s suspenseful and haunting storytelling, we’re often reminded of mankind’s minuscule authority against the backdrop of nature. These potent panoramas also convey the profound tension between individual freedom and powerful institutions. 

The best place to start – Incendies

Incendies is the film that really put Villeneuve on the international scene, after it played at Venice and Toronto film festivals and picked up an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. With 2009’s Polytechnique, it was one of a pair of films about misogynistic violence with which Villeneuve resumed his feature career after a near decade-long lull, following the Jean-Pierre Jeunet-like romantic oddity Maelström (2000).

The dedication for Incendies, a film adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s play about a fictional civil war set in the Middle East, reads “For our grandmothers”. It’s an Oedipal tragedy that surveys the consequences of war from a female perspective, examining intergenerational trauma by working backwards to reveal a devastating conclusion. Two narratives unfold: one from the perspective of a woman who experiences torture and witnesses unspeakable violence, and the second through her adult twin children. The twins are tasked with unravelling the mystery of her life and locating an absent father to fulfil their mother’s final dying wish.

Incendies (2010)

Incendies tackles the scars of conflict and torture head on by dwelling in their aftermath and demanding the truth. It’s a tightly orchestrated requiem not only for the dead but for those who have been altered by the cruel machinations of war. 

Speaking on the Team Deakins podcast in 2020, with regular collaborators Roger and James Deakins, Villeneuve draws a direct line from this film to themes that have run through much of his subsequent work. Motifs include communication and dehumanisation, duplicitous identities and institutions, the weaponisation of men and the duality of human nature. If you start with Incendies, you’ll notice both this thematic development and Villeneuve’s growing technical accomplishment. His captivating and provocative images come layered with intrigue and meaning. 

What to watch next

The relentless pursuit of truth lies at the centre of both Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015), which were Villeneuve’s first films in Hollywood. In each case he teamed up with two titans of their craft, cinematographer Roger Deakins and the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, to create a doom-laden ambience in which violence lurks ominously, always threatening to strike. 

Crime thriller Prisoners presents the depths of depravity a father sinks to after his daughter goes missing, presumed kidnapped. Convinced of the guilt of a local man with learning disabilities, Hugh Jackman’s desperate father embarks on a single-minded campaign of destruction. Flouting the law and ignoring the evidence, he detains a seemingly innocent man and interrogates him under threat of violence. 

Meanwhile, Sicario is a modern-day western thriller starring Emily Blunt as an FBI agent whose worldview is blown apart when she’s approached by the CIA to hunt down a drug cartel kingpin over the border in Mexico. Neither of these two films explicitly mention 9/11, but they do depict a USA where fear and paranoia are the predominant guiding forces, and systems are worked around in morally reprehensible ways in order to achieve objectives. 

Sicario (2015)

Back in Canada, the Toronto-set Enemy (2013) is a low-key, surreal mystery thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a history lecturer with an actor doppelganger. Adapted from José Saramago’s novel The Double, its keen focus on the internal conflict between a man’s id and ego opens up a wider discussion on themes of destructive male instincts and history repeating itself. 

These themes are also handled with poetic visual flair in Arrival, an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s award-winning novella Story of Your Life, and sci-fi noir sequel Blade Runner 2049.

In Arrival, Amy Adams plays a linguist tasked with translating mysterious symbols from aliens who have landed across the world. When the world powers shut off all forms of communication and decide to wage war, it’s up to Adams’ determined peacemaker to save the day. In Blade Runner 2049, Ryan Gosling’s obedient hitman sheds tears in the snow as he travels from LA to Las Vegas in a bid to locate a missing Deckard (Harrison Ford), the hero of Ridley Scott’s 1982 original. It’s an eye-opening mission that transforms him from a cold-hearted killer into a force for good and change. The film is set in a none-too-distant future, and is dominated by scarily pertinent themes of environmental collapse and dehumanisation in the digital age.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Where not to begin

Villeneuve worked on Polytechnique at the same time as Incendies, yet despite its matching theme of misogynistic violence, it’s an anomaly on his CV in being his only direct dramatisation of a real-life event – and proved controversial as a result. In December 1989 a mass shooting at a Montreal engineering school by a man who stated he was “fighting feminism” ended in the murder of 14 women and the injury of 10 further women and four men. Nearly 20 years on from the shooting, actor Karine Vanasse asked Villeneuve to make the film as an act of remembrance for those lost in the tragedy.

After a year of research spent speaking to survivors and family members, Villeneuve and his co-collaborators produced a film that bears witness to an attack on democracy, feminism and education. It was a divisive return for the director after a filmmaking hiatus but one that spoke to the way violence can shape identity.


A Denis Villeneuve season plays at BFI Southbank from September to October 2021.