(b. October 3, 1967 Trois-Rivières, Quebec)
One of Canada’s most talented, acclaimed and visually inventive young directors, Denis Villeneuve has parlayed his intimate visual style and unconventional narrative quirks into a burgeoning filmography that is at once impressive and disarming, accomplished and promising.
Villeneuve, who abandoned an interest in entomology to pursue filmmaking, first captured industry attention as part of Radio-Canada’s “La course destination monde” (1990-91), during which he produced twenty five-minute clips of his global travels and won first prize. His striking, point-of-view short film REW-FFWD (1994), produced through the National Film Board, played at festivals around the world and won a special jury prize at the Locarno International Film Festival.
He assisted legendary documentary filmmaker Pierre Perrault on Cornoauilles (1994), a film shot near the North Pole, then went on to direct many award-winning music videos – including the video for Cirque du Soleil’s Querer, which was named the most visually innovative Canadian video at the 1995 Much Music Video Awards – and acted in Zigrail (1995), the directorial debut of his regular cinematographer, André Turpin. In 1996 he wrote and directed a frantic and poignant segment for Roger Frappier’s omnibus film Cosmos, which won the Prix International des Cinémas d’Art et d’Essai at the Cannes Film Festival.
Villeneuve’s feature debut, Un 32 août sur terre (1998), starring Pascale Bussières and Alexis Martin, furthered his oddball style both formally and thematically by offering a harsh psychological portrait reflecting the angst of a generation. The film focuses on a young woman (Bussières) who, after a near-death experience, decides she must have a child immediately and enlists her long-suffering best friend (Martin) to help her. He agrees but demands that they conceive the child in a desert, so they head for the salt flats in Utah. An indelible fusion of romantic comedy and road movie with a touch of the surreal and a psychologically astute approach to its characters, the film played in the Un Certain Regard programme at the Cannes Film Festival, won the award for best film at the Namur International Francophone Film Festival and was selected as Canada’s official entry for the Academy Award® for best foreign language film.
His widely heralded follow-up film, Maëlstrom (2000), produced by mentor Roger Frappier, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival® (TIFF) where it received a Special Jury Award. The highly original and eccentric film – narrated by a talking fish – went on to win major awards at festivals around the world, including the FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, best Canadian film at the Montreal World Film Festival, best director at the Vancouver International Film Festival and best film at the Namur International Francophone Film Festival. It also won Jutra Awards for best screenplay and direction as well as five Genie Awards, including best picture, best screenplay and best director.
After a hiatus of several years, Villeneuve and co-writer Jacques Davidtz made the short film Next Floor (2008), an incendiary, surreal allegory about a grotesque dinner party. The film received countless awards, including the Genie for best live action short drama, the Canal + Prize at Cannes and awards at more than a dozen other festivals, including a Special Jury Citation at TIFF. It was also named one of Canada’s Top Ten Short Films of the year in an annual listing determined by industry professionals, filmmakers and critics organized by TIFF.
Villeneuve returned to feature filmmaking with Polytechnique (2009), a devastating account of the most infamous mass murder in Canadian history: the murder of 14 women, most of them engineering students, at Montreal’s École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989 by lone gunman Marc Lepine, who claimed in a suicide note that he did it because they were feminists and had ruined his life. Like Gus van Sant’s Elephant, which dealt with the Columbine massacre, the films eschews psychology. Shot in black and white and employing a devoutly minimalist aesthetic, the story is told through three perspectives: the gunman (Maxim Gaudette), who is identified only as the killer; Valerie (Karine Venasse), a young engineering student; and Jean-Francois (Sebastien Huberdeau), a male student tormented by his inability to help his classmates. (He is inspired loosely by a male student who was so tormented by his inaction that he eventually committed suicide, as did his parents.)
Unlike Villeneuve’s earlier films, which were more personal projects, Polytechnique was the brainchild of its star, Karine Venasse, who produced the film with veteran producers Maxime Remillard, Don Carmody and Andre Rouleau. Although the filmmakers were extremely sensitive to those who had lost friends and family members in the tragedy, consulting with them and screening the film for them before its general release, the film was denounced during its production by many people who feared that a film about the Montreal Massacre would be insensitive or exploitative. However, the film was well received upon its release, with many critics and viewers praising the its approach to the events. In addition to reminding people of the tragedy, the film also provides a corrective to the current right wing rhetoric around feminism; some of the killer’s rants share a creepy affinity with the discourse of many right wing radio and television personalities. Shot simultaneously in English and French and released in both languages, Polytechnique won virtually every major Jutra and Genie and was named one of Canada’s Top Ten Feature Films in TIFF’s annual list.
In 2010, Villeneuve made Incendies, based on a work by the celebrated Montreal-based playwright Wadji Mouawad. The film follows the odyssey of a brother and sister who journey to the Middle East to fulfill their mother’s dying wish to find the father they’ve never met and a sibling whom their mother was forced to give up at childbirth. Exploring similar themes of forgiveness in the face of unspeakable brutality, Incendies had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival and also played Telluride, Toronto and Vancouver. It won the City of Toronto Award for best Canadian feature film at TIFF and the best Canadian feature prize in Vancouver.