In a Denis Villeneuve movie, you can count on a savage act of fate changing someone’s life. In his first feature, August 32nd on Earth (1998), a woman vows to get pregnant after surviving a near-fatal car crash. The heroine of Maelstrom (2000) drives over a pedestrian after having an abortion. Polytechnique (2009) re-enacts the arbitrary murder of female engineering students in the Montreal Massacre. Villeneuve’s latest film, Incendies, tracks a mother and daughter through a maze of horrific coincidence in the Middle East. All these movies succeed against wild odds. Stories that could easily tip over into melodrama acquire uncanny power and grace. Dramatizing the Montreal Massacre sounds like an adventure in bad taste, but Polytechnique avoided the pitfalls of exploitation, wowed critics and swept the Genie Awards. Now with Incendies, Villeneuve is emerging as the most acclaimed Quebec director since Denys Arcand—and the most exciting Canadian filmmaker of his generation.
Quebec filmmakers have a robust audience in their own province, but their movies often don’t travel well. Incendies, however, has been sold to over 30 countries, and as Canada’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film, it’s getting a strong push from its U.S. distributor, Sony Classics. Canada submitted Villeneuve’s first two features as its designated Oscar candidates, without success. But the U.S. buzz around Incendies feels different, he said in a recent interview. “What I love is that the film exists. It’s not a ghost. The last time nobody had heard of it.”
Picking at a lunch of grilled scallops in a Toronto hotel restaurant, the 43-year-old Montreal filmmaker talked about what drives him to approach drama like an extreme sport. “I think I’m deeply attracted to things I fear,” he said. “I don’t feel I’m choosing films; films are choosing me.” Based on the 2004 play by Lebanese-born Montreal writer Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies is a $6.5-million Canada-France co-production that was shot in Quebec and Jordan. It’s the story of twins, Jeanne and Simon (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette), who are given two envelopes at their mother’s death, one for a father they thought dead and another for a brother they didn’t know existed. To solve the puzzle, Jeanne travels to her parents’ homeland, an unnamed country in the Middle East, while in flashbacks her mother (Lubna Azabal) endures the horrors of civil war only to meet a fate worthy of Greek tragedy.
Villeneuve is capable of outrageous fantasy. In his Buñuel-like satirical short Next Floor (2008), a dinner table at which aristocrats are gorging on African game crashes through the floor to the storey below, again and again, as servants scurry downstairs and the gluttons continue to eat, caked in plaster dust. But Villeneuve’s feature films have evolved from surreal whimsy to austere realism. “With Polytechnique there was a responsibility to history,” he explains. And with Incendies, he felt a duty to portray both Arab culture and war with an authentic eye. Much of his crew was from Lebanon, and many minor roles were filled by refugees of the Iraq war. “What touched me is that these people wanted to share the violence that they’d been through.”
Although Villeneuve’s movies explore vastly different terrain, they are all about characters plummeting through events beyond their control. And in their direction there’s specific gravity, a signature as distinctive as a singer’s voice. When asked about that, the director recalled his apprenticeship, as a naive 20-year-old who was given a plane ticket and a video camera by Radio-Canada for a show called Race Around the World. He travelled through Europe and Asia for seven months, shooting a five-minute film every week. He would send each tape back to Montreal with editing instructions and it would be slapped onto the air. “When I came home I was astonished to see they all looked the same,” he recalls. “I had to forge my own visual style on the fly. The cow is there, the sun is there, you have to shoot it right away. Now when I’m with a crew of 80 people, I think of when I was alone having to shoot the cow in front of the sun. Not thinking about cinema, just intuition and instinct.”