Un 32nd Août sur terre ((August 32nd on Earth), Denis Villeneuve, 1998)
Maelström (Denis Villeneuve, 2000)
Polytechnique (Denis Villeneuve, 2009)
Incendies ((Fires) Denis Villeneuve, 2010)
Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)
Québécois director Villeneuve has had a run of big budget sf blockbusters – Arrival (2016), Blade Runner (2017) and Dune Part One (2021) – of variable box office success and various level of my own disdain. Arrival seems to be scuppered by Sapir-Whorf nonsense, whereas the other two were unnecessary. Whilst Amy Adams is strong in Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 has less excuse for its misogyny than the original and a major female character in Dune doesn’t get to speak for the first three days of the running time. (Apparently she will be more prominent in Part Two.)
I’d not seen his earlier work, but they sounded interesting. Un 32nd Août begins with Simone (Pascale Bussières) crashing her car, then deciding in one of those When Harry Met Sally ways to get pregnant by her best mate Philippe (Alexis Martin). He is reluctant – but agrees if it happens in a desert. The nearest venue is the Utah salt flats. What could possibly go wrong?
We are in romcom territory – the how come we never fucked version, with the moment of conception deferred to comic effect. I think there’s an air of À bout de souffle about this too (and I think there’s a French new wave poster in one shot), with the short-cropped Simone. There is, of course, fantastic visuals of the desert, hints at previous violence that spread over to actual violence and a blackly comic end. Of course, it could all be fantasy in the crashed car.
At the start of Maelström – after a talking fish introduces himself – Bibiane Champagne (Marie-Josée Croze) has an abortion, as her life is unravelling. She manages a fashion boutique, but is losing money and her brother sacks her. Drink-driving one night, she hits a fish gutter (Annstein Karson), who makes it home before he dies. She is thus torn between covering her tracks and guilt over her crime. made more tricky by meeting his son, Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verreault). As in Un 32nd, there are mirky motives and attempts to start afresh, and Villeneuve jumps around in time to follow other characters. The fish, of course, is great.
Polytechnique is darker, a glorious black and white reconstruction of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, with the unnamed killer (Maxim Gaudette) as an early incel, who goes on a shooting spree in a Montréal university. Engineer Valérie (Karine Vanasse) is one of the students we follow and her experiences interlink with Jean-François (Sebastien Huberdeau), who is plagued by guilt over his inability to save the women. I was a little concerned that the film committed so much to his story – along with Gaudette getting top billing – but it does return to Valérie and her second chance, with a distinctly feminist flavour.
Incendies is based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, in turn inspired by Lebanese communist militant, Soha Bechara. Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette) attend the reading of the will of their recently deceased mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal), who asks them to locate their father and a brother they never knew they had. Simon is having none of it, whilst Jeanne heads off to unidentified Middle Eastern country which is sort of Lebanon. In flashback, we see her ostracism when pregnant by her family, the country descending into civil war and her radicalisation. As we are drawn into Jeanne’s discoveries, Simon can’t remain in Montréal, and there are the satisfying twists of family melodrama. My caveat is that I’m not sure the chronology quite works.
Finally, Enemy is Villeneuve’s first English language feature, based – presumably loosely – on José Saramago’s The Double (2002) and set in Toronto. A stranger persuades history lecturer Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) to watch a DVD, in which he spots an actor Daniel Saint Claire (Jake Gyllenhaal), who looks exactly like him. Bell decides, the way you do, and finds Claire living in an upmarket apartment under his real name Anthony Claire. Meanwhile, he has spoken to Claire’s wife, Helen Sarah Gadon). Helen is already suspicious that Anthony is having an affair, whilst Anthony is suspicious that Adam has slept with Helen. Whilst Anthony seduces Adam’s girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent), Adam lets himself into the Claire’s apartment and waits for Helen. The film goes to dark places and some moral ambiguities, along with some Kubrickian Eyes Wide Shut shenanigans. We are also in Cronenberg territory, but Dead Ringers is a superior film. Oh, and arachnophobes should give the film a miss.
I don’t think I’ve seen Villeneuve’s work between this and Arrival – Prisoners was released before Enemy but made afterwards. Enemy is the weakest of the bunch, perhaps because it isn’t really a Strangers onna Train and doesn’t go the Hitchcock route. The fantastic feels bolted on, too allusive to Kafka, and the attention is switched to a male perspective. At his best, Villeneuve’s films feature young women in trouble, on some form of quest. Whilst they are not in control, nor are they entirely passive. Blade Runner 2049 and Dune Part One are too obviously male fantasies, too hobbled by mass budgets. I’m hoping after Part Two he can do a more interesting palate-cleanser.