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The Films Of & Films That Made Denis Villeneuve at Lincoln Center

From February 16th through the 28th, Film at Lincoln Center presented a retrospective of the works of the celebrated Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve—along with a selection, curated by him, of fourteen films that have influenced and inspired him—as a prelude to the much anticipated release of his latest feature, Dune, Part Two.
For me it is still too early to assess the true stature of Villeneuve within world cinema—and whether or not his style indeed expresses a unique vision of the world—but I am fully persuaded that he is one of the most exciting directors working in Hollywood today. (Unfortunately, he does not seem to have yet attracted the attention of many distinguished critics.)
The earliest of his films to be screened in the series was the English-language version of the powerful Polytechnique from 2009, a fictionalization of the École Polytechnique mass shooting in Montreal in 1989. Compellingly photographed in black-and-white widescreen, the confident and abundant reliance on the Steadicam is in the service of a visual dynamism that is a hallmark of the director’s style. Although Villeneuve has the perpetrator state in voiceover his rationale for the killings, the director intelligently resists fully endorsing this explanation for his actions. A slightly complicated flashback structure is another example of Villeneuve’s unconventional approach to his material, while the aspects that recall American thrillers prefigure the filmmaker’s subsequent engagement with genre cinema.
Villeneuve fully embraced the thriller genre with his first Hollywood film, the astonishing Prisoners from 2013, which is summarized in Film at Lincoln Center’s program note: “Two young girls are abducted in the fictitious Pennsylvania city of Conyers; when a detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrests and then releases the lone suspect (Paul Dano), the father of one of the girls (Hugh Jackman) seeks to find out the truth regarding his daughter’s disappearance by any means necessary.” The film is brilliantly photographed by the now legendary Roger Deakins and is effectively scored by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. Villeneuve is immeasurably aided by his outstanding cast that also includes Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo and David Dastmalchian.
The remarkable Enemy from 2013—described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as “about a man who discovers that a minor actor is his exact double and seeks him out”—an adaptation of José Saramago’s novel, The Double, reveals unexpected dimensions within Villeneuve’s talents, with its effective surrealistic elements and an assured recreation of a Lynchian atmosphere. (The eminent literary critic Harold Bloom asserted that he regarded Saramago “as our planet's strongest living novelist, beyond any contemporary European or any of the Americans, whether they write in English, Spanish, or Portuguese.”) Gyllenhaal, who plays the protagonist and his double, again displays a surprising range, going well beyond his terrific performance in David Fincher’s amazing Zodiac from 2007. The fine supporting cast includes Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon and Isabella Rossellini. More conventional but no less engrossing is the director’s next feature, Sicario from 2015, a thriller about the Mexican war on drugs. Villeneuve again elicited superb work from Deakins and Jóhannsson as well as an incredible cast that includes Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Jon Bernthal and Victor Garber.
The director has essayed the science-fiction genre with his subsequent four motion pictures, beginning with Arrival in 2016, which unfortunately I have not yet seen. The following year’s Blade Runner 2049–a long awaited sequel to the classic Ridley Scott film from 1982 that was also screened in this series—seems to me, on a first viewing, to be Villeneuve’s greatest achievement to date. Working from an intriguing script by Hampton Fancher, who co-wrote the original, the director exhibits a real understanding of Scott’s movie, and with his cinematographer—Deakins again—fashioned a visually breathtaking re-imagining of a dystopian future. Harrison Ford wonderfully reprised his role as Deckard, and another extraordinary cast features Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto and Edward James Olmos.
Dune, from 2021, after Frank Herbert’s enormously popular novel that was enchantingly adapted by David Lynch in 1984, was a major commercial and artistic success. In Villeneuve’s version, the approach to narrative is unexpectedly slow-moving but this proved to be aesthetically effective. Again, the director assembled a marvelous cast, including Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Brolin again, Stellan Skarsgård, Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa and Javier Bardem. The director also continued a productive collaboration with the superior composer of film scores, Hans Zimmer, that began with Blade Runner 2049. The recently released sequel, Dune, Part Two, only confirms Villeneuve’s stature as an enthralling filmmaker, in what is much more of a traditional action movie than its predecessor. The exceptional new cast-members include Austin Butler, Florence Pugh, Christopher Walken and Léa Seydoux.
One of the greatest films that Villeneuve selected for the series was Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai—it was screened in a beautiful 35-millimeter print and apparently was an influence upon Dune, Part Two—which was acclaimed by the realist critic, André Bazin:
The Seven Samurai itself might not be the very best Japanese production: in the ratings given to Japanese films by Japanese critics, for example, The Seven Samurai was rated third in 1954, even as Rashomon was rated fifth in 1950. There is undoubtedly more reason to prefer, over Kurosawa, the tender lyricism and subtle musical poetry of Kenji Mizoguchi. Like Rashomon, The Seven Samurai exhibits a too-facile assimilation of certain characteristics of Western aesthetics and the splendid blending of them with Japanese tradition. Moreover, there is in this instance a narrative structure of diabolical cleverness. For its progression is arranged with an intelligence that is all the more disconcerting because it respects the romantic approach at the same time as it spends perhaps too much time and labor on the blossoming of the narrative itself.
Still, The Seven Samurai is one of the best films from the Japanese school ever to have arrived in the West. Even though for several years now I have been waiting for my admiration for Akira Kurosawa to wane, finally to expose my alleged naïveté of the preceding year, each new film of his conf rms the feeling that I am in the presence of everything that constitutes good cinema: the union of a highly developed civilization with a great theatrical tradition and a strong tradition in plastic art, as well.
As its title indicates without ambiguity, this picture belongs to the traditional, historical vein that has already given us Teinosuke Kinugasa's remarkable The Gates of Hell. Every cross-cultural transposition being performed, The Seven Samurai is a sort of Japanese Western, but one worthy of comparison with the most glorious examples of the genre produced in the United States, especially the films of John Ford. For the rest, this reference gives but an approximate idea of the film, whose scope and complexity largely go beyond the dramatic boundaries of American Westerns. Not that The Seven Samurai is a complex story in the way that Kurosawa's Rashomon is—in fact quite the opposite is the case, its narrative line being as simple as possible. This general simplicity is enriched, however, by the fineness of the film's details, their historical realism and human veracity.
He added:
The beauty and skill of this narrative arise from a certain harmony between the simplicity of the action and the wealth of details that slowly delineate it. This kind of narrative reminds one of Ford's Stagecoach and Lost Patrol, but in The Seven Samurai there is more romantic complexity as well as more volume, and variety, in the historical fresco. As we can see, these points of reference are very “Western.” The same holds true for the otherwise extremely Japanese images, whose depth of field is reminiscent of the cinematographic effects of the late and much-lamented Gregg Toland.
In conclusion, I cannot do any better than allow Akira Kurosawa to explain his artistic ambitions himself: “Normally, an action movie can only be an action movie. But how marvelous it would be if an action film could at the same time paint a portrait of humanity! That has always been my dream, ever since the time I was an assistant director. And for the last ten years I have been wanting to reconceive historical drama from this new point of view.” Suffice it to say that The Seven Samurai itself is not unworthy of such an aim.
The major modernist critic, Noël Burch, in a footnote in his important book on Japanese cinema, To the Distant Observer, seriously underrated the film, saying that “The Seven Samurai, in part because of its exceptional length and consequently leisurely pace, is certainly the finest of Kurosawa’s minorjidai-geki.” The most judicious assessment of the work I have read is by the auteurist critic, Dave Kehr:
Akira Kurosawa’s best film is also his most Americanized, drawing on classical Hollywood conventions of genre (the western), characterization (ritual gestures used to distinguish the individuals within a group), and visual style (the horizon lines and exaggerated perspectives of John Ford). Of course, this 1954 film also returned something of what it borrowed, by laying the groundwork for the “professional” western (Rio Bravo, etc) that dominated the genre in the 50s and 60s. Kurosawa’s film is a model of long-form construction, ably fitting its asides and anecdotes into a powerful suspense structure that endures for all of the film’s 208 minutes. The climax—the battle in the rain and its ambiguous aftermath—is Kurosawa’s greatest moment, the only passage in his work worthy of comparison with Mizoguchi.
And near the end of his life, Robin Wood included it in a list of his ten favorite motion pictures, noting that, “For me, three films stand out in Kurosawa’s uneven career (the other two being Ikiru and High and Low): one of the cinema’s greatest ‘action’ movies, thrilling and sublime.”

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