Reviews of the Denis Villeneuve films August 32nd on Earth, Enemy, Maelstrom, and Polytechnique.
AUGUST 32ND ON EARTH
Several of the ingredients that typify Villeneuve’s later triumphs are identifiable in his 1998 directorial debut. Immediately he displays his acumen for shot framing, as in two instances of beautifully lined up phallic symbolism, or the striking scenic photography that turns the Great Salt Lake Desert into a surrealist play area. Props too to DP Andre Turpin for how good it looks, with the elegance belying this indie oddity’s modest means. It’s a fun romantic oddity at that; in many ways a companion piece to Maelstrom, containing strong use of colour (in the former it was all blues, here it’s yellows reds and whites), a fantastical bent (more subtle here), and yes, a twist. I could really have done without the necrophilic au revoir, but I will take the wicked cabbie who abandons his customers in the desert, its blunt ”put a baby in me!” premise, and the static electricity and comic awkwardness of a love unrequited. B+
There’s double Gyllenhaal in a doppelganger feature that feels like a short film. A single gimmick at its centre, sparse dialogue, with each inherent delimiter stretched out to 90-minutes they can’t fully sustain. Visually, its conspicuous grading—not black-and-white but yellow-and-black— is less effective in its use of colour than Villeneuve’s other low-budget efforts. The final act does however match the visual opacity by finding genuine darkness in the plot thread it pursues, before ending in yet another car-crash and another aggressively inscrutable twist. There’s no escaping Enemy’s ephemerality, and in any case, the first of Jake and Denis’s 2013 collabs had already delivered the goods by the time of its release. B+
This one goes over my head. Abortions, ocean operatics, a French fish narrating a fairy tale in a medieval abattoir. At first it looks like it’s going to be an allegory about the first (with cod?) before it briefly becomes a dark fantasy, and by the end it’s an existential romantic drama. Popular music of all description is spraywashed everywhere: Oliver’s “Good Morning Sunshine”, Charles Azvanour’s chansons, with the key signature being Tom Waits at his most submarine. It’s all about the sea you see. I don’t really. B
In 1989, a self-declared male misogynist walked into the Polytechnic School of Montreal armed with a rifle and murdered 14 people, 10 of whom were women. That tragedy is depicted here by Villeneuve, whose most significant stylistic decision is to film it in black and white. By doing so, he turns the ordinary corridors and spaces of the college into an oppressive jungle—all parallel lines and darkened corners. The characters are slightly underwritten, a consequence of a circumscribed runtime of just 77-minutes, and the plotting is unnecessarily elaborate, jumping around in the middle third between different perspectives and times. In doing so, it interrupts the intensity and shock of the massacre itself. But Polytechnique is built not just around the massacre, but around Val, a fictional student who is denied a place on a mechanical engineering internship because of the classically misogynistic conviction that a woman can’t be committed to her career because of her commitments to childrearing. It’s clearly an artificial narrative, and fair enough too. There’s a solid logic to building it from the perspective of a female student, who in an everyday scenario has to confront the same discriminatory belief system that toxified the killer’s mind. Decisively, her story leads to a deeply moving peak, as years after surviving a massacre that was committed to extirpate her sex, she walks across the floor of an aerospace factory. Villeneuve though, not content with a Spielberg ending, displays his intelligence by tempering this poignant victory with a parting acknowledgment of the intractable, dilemmatic pressures women are forced to contend with. A-