Demolitions Expert: Denis Villeneuve and the Horror in the Ordinary

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In 1989, a young man killed fourteen women at Montreal’s Polytechnique school of engineering with a Mini-14 semi-automatic carbine. In 2009’s Polytechnique, the tragedy is fictionalized in deep focus black and white that clarifies every bullet hole. There is the placid face of the young man pausing to reload his carbine. And you, the onlooker, plead at the screen the way you would for the victim of some slasher villain, “For god’s sake, somebody do something. Get him while he reloads!” We know this narrative, the angry predator, the innocent victims. It typically serves a romantic purpose, allowing the half formed young individual to reach definition through heroism and self-sacrifice. But here the square jawed young man is directionless in the face of chaos. He wanders through the hallways with no plan. He saves no one. Even the female survivor, in a subversion of “final girl” hood, discovers only greater horror lying on the other side of survival. There is horror at the center of most of Denis Villeneuve’s six features, stretching beyond the brief explosions of onscreen violence to enshroud the films with a sense of unstoppable menace, accumulating like snow until it buries everything. Villeneuve says he’s afraid of violence. His films vet this assertion, serving almost as therapeutic processing, as a gradual coming to terms with those objects too awful to be gazed at but too huge to be ignored.

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Villeneuve was born in 1967, in Gentilly, Quebec, near a pair of notoriously finicky, and ultimately shuttered, nuclear reactors. The generators were too unreliable to power the cinemas in which he grew up, consuming a steady diet of American films. But, like the ominous soundtracks of his eventual features, they were always there in the background, volatile energy lurking in the infrastructure, and the unspoken trust placed in its sibylline mechanisms.

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His second film, Maelstrom, is flush with moments of idiosyncratic verve, narrated by a series of dead fish and laying the groundwork for the director’s career long dance with determinism and the interrelatedness of human action and death. But the film lies buried too far beneath its own “movieness”, featuring one too many Tom Waits needle drops and garish, early 2000’s digital photography. Polytechnique is kind of a stark masterpiece, ringing every second of tension and ultimate redemption out of a spare 77 minutes. But it was perhaps too spare to draw the director international attention. For that he would need to make an epic.

In 2010’s Incendies, a young woman travels from Quebec to somewhere vaguely Mesopotamian (probably Lebanon) in the wake of her mother’s death, searching for the long lost sibling revealed in mom’s will. The search alternates between past and present, the mother’s search for her son in the 1970s blurring with that of her daughter decades later. Two generations of characters accrue pain through a vast web of coincidence. Incendies saw Villenueve expand the physical scale of his film making, but it’s scope is epic more appropriately on an emotional level. It approaches Douglas Sirk levels of melodrama, sometimes veering so far into “long arm of fate” territory that it becomes almost absurd. But to demand mimesis from the film is like planting your face an inch away from an expressionist painting and exclaim, “I don’t see no damn flowers.” The best vantage point is that once applied to Greek tragedy. Two millennia ago, the goal of drama was anagnorisis, a moment of crucial discovery in which ignorance is transformed into knowledge, usually through suffering. This views sees Villenueve’s inevitable chaos as a midwife, leading the characters through the the birth of some crucial revelation. Horror in a Villenueve film can manifest in many forms. A dream of writhing eels. A spider towering over the Toronto skyline. The steam emanating from a torture chamber. But always it indicates the potential for drastic transformation lurking in all things (think pre cancer Walter White’s soliloquy about the cycle of solution, dissolution, solution, dissolution. et al ad infinitum), that which changes a human being into something literally or figuratively monstrous.

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The Toronto of Enemy is infused with totalitarian inferences. Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc lends the long lines of choked highway the existential ruin of Cronenberg’s Crash. Apartment towers become anonymous monoliths. There seems to be an unspoken judgement here, the same judgement that falls on the long stretches of anonymous suburb in Prisoners. Though released in 2014 in the US, Enemy was made on a tiny scale nearly back to back with the big budget melodrama of Prisoners a year earlier. Theirs are two equally reliable everyday environments, Toronto to the north, Pennsylvania to the south. Both find in this everyday milieu something potent and festering. Both build a very different mystery around a perfectly utilized Jake Gyllenhaali, Sarah Gadon used just as perfectly as the woman who has to sort all this nonsense out. Prisoners, meanwhile, exists in a zone of flashlight beams through darkness, lurking maniacs and duplicitous suburbsii that does David Fincher better than he’s been since Zodiac. Maniac veers into even stranger territory, moving through melodrama and into the realm of cerebral ambiguityiii. And with it we arrive almost at Villenueve’s doorstep. This year promises the release of his next film, Sicario, another big budget American production. There are rumors bubbling that he will helm the Bladerunner sequel no one was asking for and only contrarians will like. Who knows? Maybe it will give him a chance to explore the thin line between humanity and horror, except this time with, like, replicants? Ok. Whatever. The point being, American film is an understandable goal for international directors, but let’s hope Villeneuve can continue to retain his creative freedom as his budgets and exposure increase.

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Villeneuve grew up two hours northwest of Lake Meganitc, a village built on the confluence of half a dozen 19th century railroad lines. On July 6, 2013, a train derailed as it passed through downtown. It was carrying a payload of highly combustible crude oil from North Dakota, prone to a phenomenon known as a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion. The ensuing explosion had a half mile wide radius. It destroyed thirty buildings. It killed forty seven peoplei. These things happen all the timeii. The same train rumbles by every day and sounds its whistle until one day it explodes. What do we do then, when entropy breaks through the patina? Denis Villeneuve would like to know. So he directs films. Real life tragedy lacks shape, creating only so much scattered debris. But maybe through the films Villeneuve hopes some meaning can be extracted? Maybe they can bring us as close to the edge as possible, to where we can glance over, and glimpse the secrets waiting there.

Adam Hofbauer

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