I ended up returning to Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique at exactly the wrong time. On Election Day, I decided to keep my eyes away from CNN and MSNBC by re-watching a handful of Villeneuve’s films, including his devastating breakout Incendies and his aforementioned black-and-white-lensed debut. In comparison to news, these harrowing dramas felt like Ativan. It also felt right. Villeneuve’s films have largely focused on the endurance and bravery of women in the face of a deeply corrupt world run and extensively compromised overwhelmingly by (largely white) men. And for a few months there, it looked like Hillary Rodham might have been able to put a dent in that world. I, and hundreds of millions of other people, were clearly wrong in this belief. This time.
There is a remarkable scene in Polytechnique, which centers on the École Polytechnique Massacre in December of 1989, in which a violent misogynist shot 28 students and killed 14 women before committing suicide, which confronts the audience. One male student (Sébastien Huberdeau) who bears witness to the attacks, and attempts to save a few of his fellow students, suddenly finds himself hypnotized by a print of Picasso’s “Guernica,” the master’s tremendous, inventive, and unspeakably influential vision of war. Villeneuve’s camera slowly tracks in on the print, as if approaching and being in stunned awe of horror, chaos, and resilient, unreasonable fury that’s about to descend on a haloed place of learning.
That slow, ominous tracking shot has become one of Villeneuve’s most potent visual expressions of both awakening, of sudden, intractable knowledge of a coming storm of violence. In Sicario, the shot is used early on, pushing forward toward a mutilated, aged corpse wrapped in plastic sheeting behind the walls of a suburban Texas home, busted open by Emily Blunt’s no-bullshit FBI task leader. As Villeneuve sees it, America has never really wanted to give up its drugs but certainly wants the world to think that it’s bad, hiding their secret addictions and faults within the plaster of their fabricated self-image like those very same corpses. And then there’s also the director’s focus, alongside the brilliant DP Roger Deakins, on Blunt’s character’s smoking of cigarettes, a no-bones-about-it drug that America has legalized and continues to pour an astounding amount of money into.
Sicario is about illusions, as much about how we look at drugs as we do the drug war, and when a woman of great purpose who can run with violent, morally flexible men sees the hopelessness of her goal, the fatalism and required ugliness of this endeavor, her entire soul and her endurance seems to transform into wreckage. Villeneuve’s films are often about women attempting to understand or maybe even come to terms with masculine society, and he makes the actions of man at once vaguely familiar and at an almost alien distance.
Prisoners is easily the director’s weakest effort thus far specifically because he becomes too complacent, too easily intrigued by the familiar ideas of Catholicism as a belief system that not only allows but encourages, even its seemingly peaceful message, separation of citizens from a society and a simplistic philosophy of good vs. evil. That it also clearly condones and even occasionally celebrates violence, in the name of an unaccountable “good,” is just the rotten cherry on top. It’s also the singular movie in Villeneuve’s oeuvre where the female roles are almost entirely sublimated by the heaving, mordant plot.
Similar things could be said about the electric Enemy but women are crucial to the film, in that it’s the women in either of the two Jake Gyllenhaal’s lives that most potently reflect their character. It’s also about performance and how manufactured or imagined variations of the self can sometimes come to corrupt one’s sense of self-possession. All of Villeneuve’s movies come back to ideas about filmmaking, and this is particularly true of Arrival, his latest and arguably greatest work thus far. Early on, Amy Adams’ linguistics genius, Dr. Louise Banks, meets her partner, a charming scientist named Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner, and they have a quick tete-a-tete about whether its more important to know what the alien species – they become known as Heptapods – is or how to communicate with them. Consider, for a moment, if they were, say, a writer meeting with an actor, or a director meeting with their DP, and they were discussing not how to find out why the Heptapods have arrived but rather how to convey ideas to an audience. In this sense, the Heptapods’ completely visual language – it reminded me of the cover of Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett, and Gary Peacock’s exquisite “Changeless” – speaks to Villeneuve’s wish to at once break free from the confines of merely verbal language and create an almost exclusively visual story. It’s praise enough to say that he comes awfully close to succeeding in this want.
For those who have not seen the movie, I’d suggest you stop right here and see the movie, if you have any interest, as this is where both the greatness and flaws of the film comes into play. This is your official spoiler warning if you haven’t seen Arrival. The Heptapods gift, in their language, is an ability to understand the contours of time and space, to be able to know one’s personal future, a fact that eventually gives way to the film’s cleverest narrative trick. To say that Villeneuve, DP and regular Ava DuVernay collaborator Bradford Young, and editor Joe Walker of 12 Years a Slave, blackhat, and Sicario pull this reveal off gracefully is to hugely undervalue their abilities as visual storytellers but that’s less impressive when the twist itself leads to a narrowing of the movie’s vision. The Heptapod’s gift is to see time beyond its terrestrial-normative confines and yet the entire point of their gift becomes a mechanism in the script to add a pinch of romance to the film and an admirable but empty kind of visual wit. For such a majestically shot film, where size, gestures, and texture become wondrous indicators of inner turmoil and persona, the focusing on Banks’ daughter’s death and when exactly it happens minimizes what should be a bracingly strange experience into a rote trope.
On the other hand, as a film about a woman’s own interior life and ambition, Arrival is kinetic, awe-inspiring, and intimate, filled with some of the most alluring and tense images you’re likely to see this year outside of Manchester By the Sea and 13th. As with Sicario and, to a lesser extent, Incendies, there is a pervasive feeling that Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer put women on a pedestal a bit too much, expressing a coy, dubious belief that the female of the species always lends a kind of moral and emotional clarity to everything. Heck, if one wanted to, Arrival could be read as a tribute to women’s intuition writ large in science-fiction tropes.
That doesn’t quite explain the decisions Banks makes in regards to Ian and her daughter, ultimately. She makes a personal decision that plays with other peoples’ lives recklessly and though she’s empathetic to how her nearest and dearest react to this, she’s doing exactly what she thinks is right in the moment. Unlike those last devastating moments of Sicario with Blunt’s agent, Arrival ends with a kind of radical acceptance of time with or without confines, of the tragedies that define us and force us to grow even as the pain becomes near unbearable. Arrival is about hope in the face of certain, wrenching tragedy, where Polytechnique saw women capable of surviving and striving in the wake of attacks specifically on female independence, feminist thought, and a yearning to be well-employed. In a sense, now is exactly the right time to be watching Villeneuve’s imperfect, remarkable films.