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Villeneuve, Denis

Entry updated 5 May 2022. Tagged: Film, People.

(1967-    ) Canadian film director and screenwriter. Born in Bécancour, Quebec, into a Francophone family, Villeneuve has directed both French- and English-language films. He began making short films while in high school and later pursued film studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He is the director of the big-budget sf movies Arrival (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Dune: Part One (2021). His non-sf films include Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), and Sicario (2015). Another, Enemy (2013), contains strong fantastic elements.

Villeneuve's focus is typically psychological; key themes are personal Identity and determinism. He deliberately uses empty spaces, especially deserts, as mirrors for the inner journeys of his protagonists – landscapes in which they are naked spiritually and psychologically [see interview under links below]. (In Enemy (2013) the concrete, high-rise urban landscape imposes its own form of isolation.) Villeneuve is always interested in the extent to which his characters are prisoners of history and of their own pasts, and in their attempts to confront or break free of these constraints.

Arrival (2016), a First Contact tale adapted from the novella "Story of Your Life" (in Starlight 2, anth 1998, ed Patrick Nielsen Hayden) by Ted Chiang, eschews outer-space pyrotechnics in favour of a more cerebral investigation of the complexities of Communication with Alien species, without letting the narrative tension lag. Here concern with confronting the personal and collective past is extended to embrace future events that may appear unavoidable. The movie won both the Hugo and Nebula awards; it received an Academy Award nomination in the Best Picture category and earned Villeneuve a nomination in the Best Director category.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017), a sequel to the Ridley Scott-directed Blade Runner (1982) – itself based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) – was generally well received by critics, even though it was a box office disappointment. Villeneuve's creation is consciously respectful of Scott's original, in particular the film-noir atmosphere. Both films diverge significantly from Dick's novel. Perhaps most crucially, the films' "replicants" are a reversion toward the traditional sf use of Androids to represent victims of discrimination, unjustly denied their humanity, and here made (in both senses) to be an exploited underclass. By contrast, Dick's androids symbolize humans who, lacking empathy, are sinking into a mechanical state of inauthenticity and who, as such, pose a real danger to society.

Dune: Part One (2021) manages the feat of pulling together key threads of Frank Herbert's sprawling, complex novel Dune (fixup 1965) in a notably faithful retelling. As a teenager, Villeneuve was an avid reader of sf and Dune was (and remains) a particular favourite. He discovered this book, in a French translation, at the same time that he began to dream of making films. He has said he hopes his movie version would meet with the approval of his younger self. The movie had a positive critical reception, although the story left viewers hanging in anticipation of Part Two. Its spectacular imagery was widely, even lavishly, praised and, like Blade Runner 2049, it won multiple awards for cinematography and visual effects. [AT]

Denis Villeneuve

born Bécancour, Quebec: 3 October 1967


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