The divine desert by Denis Villeneuve

Eleven feature films in just over twenty-five years. A career that began in Quebec and continues in Hollywood. A consummate cinematographic art. A vision, a real one. Denis Villeneuve is now one of those filmmakers who can be described as geniuses without erring on the side of hyperbole. Considering his most recent films, the last one in particular, Dune: Part Two (Dune, part two), it is simply factual. And like the filmographies of a few other filmmakers of this stature, that of Villeneuve proves fascinating in its perpetual rearrangement of key figures and recurring themes. Analysis.

In 2000, for the release of Maelstrom, his second film, Denis Villeneuve confides to Pierre Gaffié, from the Objectif cinéma site, about what once motivated him to become a director: “I was predestined to contemplate a ceiling for the rest of my days. Cinema is a lifeline for me, a mechanism that allows me to transform this underwater apathy into action, and to rise to the surface. »

Said apathy turned into action many times, but without precipitation. Because he creates by knowing how to take the time to think, Denis Villeneuve. Since 1998 and August 32 on earthhis first film, short or long hiatuses are not uncommon.

Speaking ofAugust 32 on earth, this original work in many respects sets the tone – or finally the content – ​​for what follows. In fact, with this heroine who emerged unscathed from an accident (Pascale Bussières) who decides to make a 180-degree existential turn on the borders of the Utah desert, we are already in the presence of characteristic elements of Denis’ cinema Villeneuve, whether or not the director is the author of the scenarios: the traumatic event that changes the course of a life, the transformation of oneself and, of course, the desert in all its symbolic possibilities.

Since 1991, in The Europe-Asia race to the worlda collection of interviews collected by Jean-Louis Boudu, the filmmaker is eloquent about what will become a motif in his future films, fromAugust 32 on earth to the eventuality Cleopatra (biography of the Queen of the Nile expected in 2025), through Fires, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049 and the saga Dune : “Deserts have always fascinated me to the greatest extent […] Why the desert in particular? The fact that in a desert nothing is allowed and that life is still possible. These are places which remain of unparalleled poetic power. »

In the same vein, Villeneuve writes in his preface to the reissue of the novel Dune, by Frank Herbert: “From his first contact with the deep desert, Paul Atréides feels strangely at home there, as in a house where he would have spent part of his childhood. What should have been an uprooting for the young man gradually turns into a return home, like a furious and demented déjà vu. »

Metaphorically, the one the Hollywood Critics Association named filmmaker of the decade in 2019 could be speaking for himself.

Almost mystical

As for the “traumatic event”, this takes several forms depending on the film, but is always present as a trigger for this “self-transformation”. Which transformation will often be painful, like a (re)birth.

In Maelstrom, the protagonist (Marie-Josée Croze) also has an accident, but this time it causes a victim. And his destiny and his being to change… In Polytechnicthe tragic mass feminicide is revisited, among other things, from the point of view of a student (Karine Vanasse) who will survive, but who will never be the same again.

The heroine of the film Fires (Lubna Azabal) for her part is repeatedly tested by a religious war and, above all, by the men who wage it, through a journey of survival, resilience and adaptation. On the side of Prisoners (Prisoners), the kidnapping of his daughter sees an ordinary man (Hugh Jackman) transform into a bloodthirsty executioner. At the same time, the inspector in charge of the case (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes obsessed with this labyrinthine investigation.

In enemy (Enemy), the discovery of a double of himself disrupts the dreary existence of a professor (Jake Gyllenhaal), who plunges into full metaphysical delirium. Young, idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt), the protagonist of SicarioShe loses her illusions when she comes into contact with the ruthless reality of drug trafficking.

The only one to understand extraterrestrial visitors, the film’s translator (Amy Adams) Arrival (The arrival) receives from them decisive and poignant visions, the meaning of which is only revealed at the end. Hunter of humanoids who is himself one (Ryan Gosling), the antihero of Blade Runner 2049he faces a miracle of genetic evolution: a discovery which incites him to disobey, in a first gesture of self-determination.

In Dune: Part One (Dune), Paul, a young nobleman (Timothée Chalamet), sees his father and his people decimated by a rival clan, then takes refuge with his mother in the inhospitable desert of an arid planet where an unsuspected destiny awaits him. In Dune: Part Two, Paul refuses the role of messiah decreed by a prophecy. Chani, the young warrior who took him under her wing (Zendaya), witnesses the change that will take place in Paul, a change that will have a fundamental impact on her as well.

In Denis Villeneuve, the transformation of the protagonist(s) thus takes on a dimension that is not only existential, but almost mystical.

Territory of the divine

In this case, it is in line with the concerns of an artist who, both at the start of his career and in recent years, is worried about a world in need of sacralization: a phenomenon which results in particular in a shameless exploitation of earth’s resources (the subject of his allegorical short film Next Floor), by ruthless capitalism, and by destructive wars motivated by power and, again, money.

“The world has never been so binary and cynical. The loss of the sacred relationship with the world moves me a lot,” he declared to Objectif cinéma in 2000.

Same observation in his preface to the novel Dunetwenty years later: “ Dune vibrates the unconscious strings of our primary perception of the world, to find there a sacred dimension, a thought in relation to the marvelousness of the living, with the Ayat, the sign of life. Because our future will see our relationship with the First Mother become sacred again, or it will not be. The human beings of Dune are therefore melancholy isolated, struck by the evocative power of the landscapes which brings them back to a very welcome vulnerability and humility. The desert is there as a territory of the divine, but also as a mirror of consciences where silence reveals the rhythm of hearts and breathing. »

The desert… At Denis Villeneuve, we always come back to it. No wonder this “territory of the divine” inspires him to this extent.

Indeed, we imagine the filmmaker, as a teenager, lost in “contemplation of the ceiling” of his room. Now, what is a bare ceiling if not a blank canvas, a desert? A desert that Denis Villeneuve, having “lived part of his childhood” there, knows how to film and reinvent better than anyone.

The film Dune: Part Two takes the poster on 1er March. Also read our review published on February 21.

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