3. “Polytechnique” (2009)
Villeneuve took a long hiatus between his second and third features, but he returned with a profoundly upsetting film that bears all the hallmarks of his more recent (and more famous) fare. Often, and perhaps most easily described as the French-Canadian response to “Elephant,” this heart-stopping dramatization of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre doesn’t pursue the same feeling of helplessness that makes Gus Van Sant’s movie such an honest evocation of post-Columbine entropy.
On the contrary, “Polytechnique” has a very clear, very familiar point to make: Empathy is the only answer to anger. And that point, — in classic Villeneuve fashion — is given voice by a character towards the end of the film, as a pregnant survivor of the school shooting looks into the future and considers the role her child will have in shaping it: “If I have a boy, I’ll teach him how to love. If I have a girl, I’ll tell her the world is hers.” This is a film that defies easy criticism, and makes it hard to ignore the fundamental absurdity of quantifying art in an article like this, but “Polytechnique” feels a little bit more urgent every time the world resorts to violence.
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Villeneuve has always struggled with subtext, and “Polytechnique” is a movie that was made without any. So it goes — there’s nothing subtle about a massacre. The murderer made it explicitly clear that his killings were motivated by misogyny, and the filmmaker saw no reason to complicate that (though his script underscores that anti-feminist bent with non-violent scenes of everyday sexism). Instead, Villeneuve uses this grim premise as an opportunity to forge the hyper-experiential style that has since come to define his work, using abrasive sound design, droning music, and unflinching long-takes to grab your whole body. Over time, Villeneuve’s lack of subtlety would crystallize into immediacy. That’s a fine distinction, but one not lost on a filmmaker who’s always understood the power of words (more on that later).
2. “Enemy” (2013)
Remember the guy who made “Maelström”? Well, he’s still in there somewhere, and he’s doing great. An obvious successor to Villeneuve’s second feature (he’s even referred to these frenzied modern fantasies as “brothers”), “Enemy” is the weirdest film the director has ever made, and also the most personal.
Boldly adapted from José Saramago’s “The Double” and quick to go off the deep end, the movie stars two Jake Gyllenhaals (both of them brilliant). One is Adam Bell, an introverted college history professor with a very pregnant girlfriend (played by the great Sarah Gadon). The other is a hotheaded actor named Anthony Claire, who sees an opportunity to have a little fun with his doppelgänger’s wife (Mélanie Laurent). Sex, car crashes, and the scariest penultimate shot in movie history ensue.
At heart, “Enemy” is a story of self-destruction, a jaundiced nightmare about how hurting the people we love can split us in two. For once, however, Villeneuve has made a movie that isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. So much of his career has been spent trying (and failing) to disentangle action from its meaning, but only through making a film about failure was he able to pull that off. His least interesting movies focus on ideals, while his most interesting ones hone in on the obstacles that prevent us from living up to them. “Enemy” is so unnerving because it redirects Villeneuve’s social concerns back towards the individual subconscious. In its own poisoned way, it asks how we can shape the world when we can’t even control ourselves. In lieu of an answer, it mines a deep, lingering horror from the feeling that we can’t.
1. “Arrival” (2016)
A very good movie that stops just short of greatness thanks to a bunch of third act mishegoss (endless love for Michael Stuhlbarg, but the story gets snagged on his character like a plastic bag on a tree branch), “Arrival” is of course a story about breaking a cycle of violence. In this case, that cycle is on a cosmic scale, and meaningfully diluted for the people living in the present because the consequences of their actions won’t be felt until long after they’re dead.
But while this widely beloved Ted Chiang adaptation was, at that point, the most expansive film of Villeneuve’s career, it also hones in on the human details with a specificity that we had never seen from him before. It doesn’t merely pull at the chains of hatred, or outline a way to break them, it sublimates the solution into pure emotion until we can feel the truth for ourselves. Anchored by a wide-eyed, open-hearted Amy Adams (whose performance is an enduring reminder that Villeneuve deserves more credit for his work with actors), and bookended by a Max Richter composition that proves the director is a lot better at placing songs than he is at commissioning scores, “Arrival” pinpoints our fear of the other, and uses language to articulate the arbitrariness of our misunderstandings.
But the film’s full power only snaps into place once you recognize that its ending isn’t a example of fatalism or acceptance, but rather a beautiful moment of personal choice for someone who might not seem to have one. Adams’ character isn’t tasked with deciding whether or not to have her daughter, even though she knows the girl will die a few years later. And she’s not on the hook to decide whether or not to tell her baby daddy about what’s to come. Those things have already happened. No, the only choice that’s in her power to make is whether or not to enjoy the time her new family will have together on this Earth. It’s the same dilemma that Deckard has to deal with at the end of the original “Blade Runner” (in the non-theatrical cuts, at least), and Villeneuve handles it with such incredible grace that he definitely earned his chance to screw up the sequel.