If one were to take a poll of contemporary cinephiles asking them to name the most exciting filmmakers working today, the name of director Denis Villeneuve would undoubtedly slide in towards the top of the list— if not cap it outright. Films like PRISONERS (2013), SICARIO (2015), and ARRIVAL (2016) have stunned audiences with their daring narratives and stylistic bravura, subsequently positioning him as an inspired steward of tricky franchise resurrections like BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) and the upcoming DUNE. Although he’s been around international film circles since the 1990’s, this rather incredible run of acclaimed films throughout the 2010’s have sent his profile skyrocketing into the stratosphere. Indeed, it’s gotten to the point that his name could be mentioned in the same breath as Christopher Nolan when discussing prestigious studio filmmakers whose films are seen as “events” in and of themselves. While he is often compared to Nolan due to their shared mastery of filmmaking‘s technical aspects and epic-canvas approach to storytelling, Villeneuve distinguishes himself through an ability to conjure a sustained atmosphere of deep dread and relentless foreboding— the visual equivalent of a low-frequency note that one can’t actually hear but nonetheless experiences as an unsettling sensation. He has yet to make a horror film in the classical sense, but his artistic style nonetheless channels the existential horror of his protagonists and projects it outward as slow, undulating waves of tension. His body of work may span three decades, but there is a distinct sense that the 52 year-old filmmaker is only just getting started.
Born October 3rd, 1967, in Bécancour, Quebec (6), Villeneuve’s background as a French Canadian citizen fundamentally shapes the character of his early career. He studied filmmaking at the Université du Québec á Montréal, experiencing some success with his earliest efforts: in 1991, for example, Villeneuve was selected as the winner of a youth film competition hosted by Radio-Canada. Even before he came to the attention of mainstream American audiences, he received several Canadian Screen Awards (their equivalent of our Oscars or Emmys). His earliest available work from this period — the 1994 short REW FFW — seems far removed from the style we associate with Villeneuve today, but it nevertheless plants the seeds for his particular artistic worldview. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his insistence on referring to the piece as a “psychodrama” instead of a “film”. The term, whether it was coined by Villeneuve himself or someone else, could easily apply to any of his feature films (at least, within his 2010’s output). It acts as a descriptor of both subgenre and tone, grounding events as outlandish as an alien invasion, meeting one’s exact doppelgänger, or even the discovery of oneself as a synthetic human being with nuanced, complex character reactions.
REW FFW adopts this conceit to an extreme degree, positioning itself as a pseudo-sci-fi immersion into the experiences of a journalist interacting with the Rastafarian culture in an impoverished Jamaica. In structuring his story as a series of first-person memories that the protagonist can experience like a film, able to jump around at any point in the timeline with the aid of a special device, Villeneuve blurs the line between documentary and fiction. Shot by Villeneuve himself and cameraman Martin Leclerc on 16mm film, the footage is presented in a handheld, cinema-verite fashion, complete with rack zooms and frequent composition adjustments that organically capture the desolate ruins and strangely-beautiful squalor of an urban slum that the locals refer to as “Trench Town”. Indeed, it almost feels as if the footage had been shot on-the-fly with no ulterior agenda during a trip to the island nation, only to have a narrative shape imposed upon it after the fact. Indeed, it’s in Villeneuve’s collaboration with editor Suzanne Allad where the footage coheres into a coherent story, bolstered by a richly-layered sound mix that blends production audio with snippets of found radio transmissions and evocative aural effects. The key piece of Villeneuve’s audiovisual puzzle is his inclusion of a shot that slowly approaches a strange box, lit in a theatrical style that stands in stark contrast to the naturalistic Jamaica footage. A voiceover tells us this is the vehicle through with the protagonist can access his memories at will— a kind of psychological cinema projector.
Scrappy, abstract and decidedly experimental, REW FFW bears little resemblance to the weighty, formalist aesthetic Villeneuve would come to be known for. However, it nonetheless establishes that his cerebral approach to form and content has been in place from the very start. The piece steadfastly refuses to provide easy answers, forcing the audience to work for total comprehension by utilizing a stream-of-consciousness bilingualism that harkens to Villeneuve’s French-Canadian roots. Above all, it evidences a young filmmaker eager to capitalize on the endlessly malleable visual grammar of the cinematic art form— and in the process, it becomes the first step towards a highly-influential career that has managed to entwine itself with the contemporary zeitgeist.
REW FFW is currently available via the YouTube embed above.