Just watch him

Hanging out in Hollywood with Denis Villeneuve, whose ’Incendies’ is up for best foreign-language film
Just watch him
Photograph By Brigitte Sire; Photo Illustration By Bradley Reinhardt; eOne Films

We’re at a corner table in the restaurant of the legendary Chateau Marmont Hotel, sharing an overpriced plate of oysters from New Brunswick. It seemed as good a place as any to go for dinner with Denis Villeneuve, the Quebec director whose film Incendies has an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The Chateau, a faux-French knock-off of a Loire castle, is ground zero of Hollywood decadence, and has served as a hideaway home for everyone from Greta Garbo to Lindsay Lohan. It’s where James Dean hopped through a window to meet Natalie Wood, John Belushi overdosed, and Britney Spears got banned for life after smearing food over her face in the restaurant. We look around for signs of bad behaviour, but amid the Gothic arches and gold-flecked wallpaper we don’t recognize anyone misbehaving, famous or infamous. And no one recognizes the genial Québécois who will carry Canada’s hopes to the Oscars this Sunday night.

Villeneuve has spent the past week holed up at a less notorious hotel, the posh Beverly Wilshire. The only Canadian movie ever to win Best Foreign Language Film was Denys Arcand’s Barbarian Invasions (2003). Arcand’s producer-wife, Denise Robert, met with Villeneuve before he left Montreal and stressed that he would have to schmooze Academy members at endless lunches and cocktails. “We did a tremendous amount of campaigning,” Robert told me. “It was gruelling. For six months we flew back and forth to L.A.”

So I was taken aback when Villeneuve confessed that, on the advice of his American distributor, he was doing nothing to campaign for Incendies. But Invasions was released in the U.S. by Miramax under the reign of Harvey Weinstein, the Clausewitz of modern Oscar warfare. Incendies belongs to Sony Pictures Classics, whose co-president Michael Barker believes that campaigning for foreign-language films is a waste of time and money. For proof, he points to last year’s Sony Classics winner, The Secret in Their Eyes, an unknown contender from Argentina.

Just watch him
Photo Illustration By Bradley Reinhardt; eOne Films

Barker’s rationale is simple. The Foreign Language Oscar has a peculiar voting procedure. In other categories, nominees are picked by members from each craft—actors nominate actors, directors directors—and then all 6,000 Academy members can vote for the award. Foreign film nominees are selected by committees, and then only Academy members who can prove they’ve seen all five films in a theatre are eligible to vote for the winner. A few hundred voters with time on their hands will likely decide the outcome. The other foreign film nominees are Mexico’s Biutiful, Denmark’s In a Better World, Greece’s Dogtooth and Algeria’s Outside the Law. Sony Classics, which also distributes In A Better World, has booked an equal number of screenings for it and Incendies, both nominees, and bought equivalent ads in the Hollywood trades, says Barker. Villeneuve says there’s also “an underground campaign” to mobilize Canadian Academy members.

Relieved that he doesn’t have to work the cocktail circuit, Villeneuve says his L.A. sojourn has turned into an unexpected holiday, his first break since Incendies was launched six months ago to wild acclaim at festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto. He has been touring constantly to promote the movie, which has sold to 35 countries. In the final days before Oscar night, there will be a blitz of parties. But last week, aside from taking some meetings with Hollywood producers, Villeneuve was relishing the silence of his hotel room, reading scripts, pondering his next project—and stepping out to play tourist with the guy from Maclean’s.

Unfamiliar with the city, he hadn’t rented a car. I had, so I offered to drive him around. On a sunny afternoon, we ride up the avenues of skyscraper palms into Beverly Hills, and get lost in Bel Air’s maze of hedged mansions. We thread our way along the voluptuous ridge of Mulholland Drive, past addresses made famous by Brando, Nicholson and Polanski, as Villeneuve marvels at the lush vegetation and steep canyons—”I always thought of L.A. as flat.” Then, as if descending from heaven to hell, we plunge into the seedy heart of Hollywood to stroll the Walk of Fame, with its permanent Halloween of costumed hustlers, the Catwomen and Darth Vaders who work the handprint forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Villeneuve is suitably appalled. “It’s traumatic,” he says. “It’s like the Croisette in Cannes. You have this image of it, and the real thing turns out to be so tacky.” But next door is the Kodak Theatre, site of the Academy Awards. We step into the lobby and Villeneuve gazes up at the grand staircase, eyeing it like a location scout. “My wife may need some help,” he says, referring to his common-law partner of four years, actress Macha Grenon (Days of Darkenss, Barney’s Version), who plans to wear a Gucci gown with a short train. “I still can’t process that I’m going to the Academy Awards. It’s like something that belongs to childhood.”

Villeneuve—who has three children, aged 11 to 14, from a previous relationship—used to dream of Hollywood as a boy. He grew up in Gentilly, a small village on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, just upriver from the small village on the north shore where Denys Arcand was born. And he believes the river had a cinematic influence. “It’s three miles wide at that point,” he says. “I was born with a horizon.” His father, a notary from a long line of notaries, had a house built with a panoramic window overlooking the water. (The other point of interest, visible from the house, was Gentilly’s nuclear power plant, the only one in Quebec.) Villeneuve has vivid memories of being taken duck hunting on the river by his father. “You go out at 3 a.m. in a small boat. You see the mist coming off the water as you wait in the reeds. You’re with these men. It’s so dark and quiet, and then there’s this violence, the thunder of guns. I want to make a film about that one day.”

The women also left a deep impression, notably his two grandmothers, who were locked in a bitter feud for reasons he doesn’t recall. “I think that’s why my films are so focused on women,” he says. It’s true; all four of his features—Maelström, August 32nd on Earth, Polytechnique and Incendies—revolve around women. Quebec, he suggests, evolved as a society of matriarchs. It may have been ruled by men, by the Church and various mafias, but they lived in the shadow of the Conquest. “There’s a general neurosis about defeat, a humiliation in the male psyche: the men go back home after losing the battle.”

Beyond the horizon of warring matriarchs and duck-hunting notaries, Villeneuve’s boyhood imagination was fired by science fiction. He devoured comic books from France and Belgium and fell in love with cinema after seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey on video. He cycled 25 km into town to see Star Wars. In high school he worshipped Spielberg—his friends called him “Spielberg”—then went on to discover Coppola, Scorsese, and the existential wilds of Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch. When he was 13, one of his teachers, a cinephile priest, took him aside in the cafeteria: “Villeneuve, I will try to explain something you won’t understand. Last night I saw this movie with a helicopter attack set to Wagner.” He then launched into a vivid account of Apocalypse Now. Years before Villeneuve saw the film, the priest’s version was etched in his mind.

Asked which of his idols he’d be thrilled to meet, he names Coppola and Lynch. He’s also a fan of Biutiful director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whom he will meet at a party for the foreign-language candidates—and whose film, powered by an Oscar-nominated performance by Javier Bardem, is favoured to win.

But Incendies, adapted from the play by Lebanese Canadian Wajdi Mouawad, has the epic sweep and moral weight of an Oscar winner. It’s a tragedy about two Montreal siblings from an immigrant family who are confronted with a riddle at their mother’s death. She’s left two envelopes with a notary—one for a brother they didn’t know existed, the other for a father they thought was dead. As they travel to the Middle East to unravel the mystery, flashbacks trace a harrowing legacy of civil war.

Now, as Villeneuve contemplates his next movie, he’s torn between his original projects and a stack of Hollywood screenplays. While reading one script in his hotel room, he says, “I’ll be staring out the window thinking about two others. It’s like trying to be with a woman when your heart is with another.”

Before leaving L.A., I drive Villeneuve to Venice Beach. It’s spitting rain but we walk across the sand into a rising wind to touch the ocean. “I think they built Hollywood on the West Coast,” he ventures, “because they were always dreaming of a new world. When they arrived here, the only way to keep dreaming was to make movies—film was the fourth dimension.” And unlike the river of his childhood, its horizon is unlimited.