With perfect hindsight it’s easy to see Denis Villeneuve’s first feature, August 32nd on Earth (Un 32 Août sur Terre, in the original French), as the work of a director who would go on to make great sci-fi like Arrival, Bladerunner 2049 and Dune.
Back in 1998, when it was released, it looked more like a homage to the French New Wave, albeit with little otherworldly touches ensuring that while its feet are on the ground, its head is somewhere else.
With a “here I am” opening announcing Villeneuve as a young man in hurry, we’re introduced to Simone (also the film’s original title), a young woman in a hurry who’s gunning her car along the road while Villeneuve’s ADHD camera jumps from headlights, to speedo, to Simone’s drowsy eyelids, to the car wandering out of its lane, back and forth, to and fro, the tension of the aggressive cutting accentuated by the sound of the screaming engine.
She crashes. She escapes, largely unscathed. Calling card having been extended and received, French-Canadian Villeneuve then settles down to deliver what’s largely one of those talky French dramas, with Pascale Bussières, who plays the girlish, gamine Simone, as a latterday version of someone like Jean Seberg. Alexis Martin manfully takes on the role of her Jean-Paul Belmondo, as Philippe, the old friend Simone, mortality having been tasted, now suddenly wants to be impregnated by.
If the joy of watching A Bout de Souffle is looking on as two young people hover at the edge of something that will take them out of their own narcissism, there’s something similar going on here. Philippe has a girlfriend but has always loved Simone. Simone doesn’t love Philippe but does suddenly want a baby. He’s reluctant to go all in with her (literally), because there will be no way back (figuratively). She… is a bit harder to read but is just possibly the spoilt and entitled model she at first appears to be.
There’s a poster of Seberg on the wall of Philippe’s apartment, and Villeneuve makes sure we see it, but most of the action – in a French New Wave sense of the word – takes place on Utah’s empty salt flats. This is where Simone eventually whisks Philippe off to, hoping that by getting him a long way away from his girlfriend, in a spookily unreal milieu, she’ll be able to loosen his objections, and trousers.
Here, in the blinding white of the salt flats, Villeneuve and DP André Turpin (who worked with Villeneuve all the way up to his mainstream breakthrough, Incendies) have no trouble suggesting a sci-fi or supernatural otherness. But actually the whole film is brightly lit, in that slightly aseptic way of the modernist sci-fi, and many of Villeneuve’s locations – hospitals, airports, a capsule hotel – all give off faint connotations of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Powell and Pressburger and Ingmar Bergman at their most supernatural also can’t be ruled out as inspirations.
Stylistically bold or show-offy, according to taste, Villeneuve’s camera alternates between the cool subjectivity of the New Wave and something Guy Ritchie might recognise – 1998 was also the year of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Either way, this switching of styles also prevents his film from being easily pigeonholed.
The 32nd? On Earth? The title and so many visual cues take us one way while the scenario – a woman and a man talking, essentially – drag us in the other.
Talking of drag, Villeneuve has got the mood, the look, the style all just right here, but the story doesn’t set the world on fire and the will they/won’t they isn’t half as enticing as it’s meant to be. And that’s with sex and death as come-ons. Villeneuve had another go at a similarly themed film, Maelström, two years later, and then, unhappy at the reception for both that and this, gave up for nine years and had a good long think. It worked out well.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021