Directors’ Trademarks: Denis Villeneuve

Denis Villeneuve is a French-Canadian filmmaker who realized his love for cinema while in college. He switched his studies from science to film and first made a name for himself directing independent movies. August 23rd on Earth (1998) was his first feature film, and it was well received at the Cannes film festival, where it earned a nomination for the best film award. His next film, Maelstrom (2000) continued the trend, winning more awards on the festival circuit. It took him 9 more years before he released another feature film, Polytechnique, which was well-received for its depiction of a current event in Canada. His breakthrough was 2010’s Incendies, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. That film convinced producers that he had a talent as a filmmaker, and because of this, he directed his first wide-release feature film Prisoners in 2013. Prisoners was well received by critics and became profitable in theaters. Villeneuve returned to his independent film roots with Enemy the same year, which critics enjoyed but it did not get a wide release in theaters. His most recent film was this year’s Sicario, which found success with critics and audiences alike.

So the question posed is, if you are watching a Denis Villeneuve film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Villeneuve’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:


Main Characters Are Looking For Something


An important technique that Villeneuve uses in many of his films, especially the later ones, is mystery. Villeneuve purposefully restricts the perspective of his films to that of the main character(s) so that all facts are not known to the audience. With this set-up, many of his characters are searching for answers, and so is the audience. This helps to set up a twist at the end, where, if the events the film depicted had been shown in a traditional “third person” perspective, it would not have been as surprising. In Prisoners, the two main characters are trying to find two missing girls. Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is working from one angle, while the father of one of the girls, Keller Dover (Jackman) is pursuing another. In Maelstrom, the search is for something less concrete. Bibiane Champagne is struggling to find purpose in her life. Incendies tells the story of a daughter trying to find her lost brother and father after the death of her mother. In Sicario the main character joins a team of special forces to try and track down a Mexican drug cartel boss who is responsible for trafficking and murders in the US. Enemy finds the main character come face-to-face with a person who appears to be his twin, and the desperate search for answers overwhelms him. 

Violent Realism


Villeneuve’s films tend to push for realism even if they may have connotations of the supernatural at times. The most striking and consistent attribute that he uses to enforce the realism in his films is through violence. He is not afraid of showing gorey details in order to evoke an emotion out of his audience. One consistent way that he does this is with car crashes. In nearly all of his films there is a car crash or some sort of violent sequence that takes place in an automobile. One of the reasons for this could be that for many of us, a car is a familiar object, and by depicting a crash violently we are better able to relate. Maelstrom depicts a hit-and-run, and then later the character drives her car into a river due to the guilt. In Prisoners, the main suspect, a mentally handicapped young man, crashes his RV when he panics from the police. In Enemy, an argument in a high speed car turns deadly as the distraction causes a wreck. Incendies features a flashback where a bus is gunned down and then set on fire with the surviving passengers inside. The opening scene of Sicario features a shootout in a traffic jam on the US-Mexico border. In August 32nd On Earth, the main character is almost killed in a car crash, which causes her to reconsider what it means to be alive. The premise of Polytechnique is a violent crime against women, and the film also ends on a somber note when a character decides to take his own life because of the regrets he struggles with.  

Isolation Shots

Villeneuve likes to transfer the perspective of his films between first, second, and third person. The films remain in traditional third person for their majority, but there are short moments where he finds it necessary to change things up. These moments are used to create emphasis or enhance the tone of the film. In Prisoners, for instance, the camera flashes to first person when Detective Loki is looking at the sketch of a maze, before he becomes upset and pushes everything off of his desk. The film then has a moment where the character is the only thing shown in the shot, a sort of isolated second-person perspective, before it pulls back to show the reaction of his peers who were in the same room. In Incendies, there is an isolation shot when one of the characters is swimming in a pool. The camera shows only her in the pool for a few seconds, even though a moment later the scope increases and we see that there are other people swimming as well. The sound in these isolation shots also echos the focus of the shot, which enhances the tone while emphasizing the action. There are several great examples in Sicario. First, during a transition when the characters are onboard a plane. The camera stays angled downward towards the ground, following the shadow of the plane as it moves over the land. The sound is almost atmospheric. Later, during the final night mission, the camera focuses on the setting sun, and flips back and forth between first-person shots showing what the characters are seeing as they gaze through their night-vision goggles.

Attention-Grabbing Opening Scene

In writing, the first sentence should be something that grabs the reader’s attention. Villeneuve approaches film in the same way. He uses his opening shot to establish a tone and draw in the viewer immediately. Typically, this scene is an important one in the context of the entire film, but the true value of that scene is not always apparent until much later. In Maelstrom, the story is told from a talking, dying fish, which starts things off on an almost surreal level, but also sets up the black comedy element that is important to appreciating the film. Enemy opens with a voice recording on a message machine. The message is from a concerned mother, so immediately the film sets up the idea that something may not be right with one of the characters. The words “Chaos is order yet undeciphered” flash onscreen. The first actual scene in the film depicts a seedy underground sex club of some sort. This sequence immediately unnerves the audience even further such that as the film continued to unfold, nothing feels comfortable. The use of a spider in this scene is also somewhat surreal. It hints at a reoccurring theme and in a way confuses the conscious with the subconscious. It feels real and dream-like at the same time.  Incendies features swelling music while the camera slowly tracks away from a scenic shot into a structure where children are having their hair cut. Without context, the scene is confusing as an opener, but the combination of music, cinematography, camera movement, and facial expressions on the actors make a powerful statement. It establishes many important aspects of the film such as a setting (middle east), the topic (children), and a dark overtone related to war.

Characters With Hidden Connections


The stories in Villenueve’s films have several layers of twists. The climax of the film typically unveils a major, often shocking, twist. This twist brings to light a connection between certain characters which was previously not known. This can leave the outcome of the film to be arguably more meaningful than the events that preceded. Sicario, for example, features two storylines which don’t seem to have any relation until the climax of the film. Each of these stories is from a law-enforcement perspective on opposite sides of the border, as if the film is explaining the impact of drug trafficking on both cultures. In both Maelstrom and Incendies, it is revealed that major characters are related to each other in more than one way. Enemy features two seemingly identical characters that are trying to figure out their connection besides just the way they look. The ending of Enemy brings up additional questions of the film that weren’t immediately apparent, which makes you reconsider the two characters in a new context.




Check out this review of  Incendies!

Want more Directors’ Trademarks? Check out the last installment:

c528f6c25193f2b94234abdd8732f524 L