August 32nd on Earth

Two pairs of feet on the salt flats

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.

Simone and Philippe talk
And here’s what Simone and Philippe look like



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









Dune

Paul Atreides with his mother, Lady Jessica

“Dreams are messages from the deep,” it says right up at the front of Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation of Dune, possibly a nod to David Lynch, whose hazy 1984 version crashed and burned in spectacular, almost sci-fi fashion.

Other nods – the design of the stillsuits and the sandworms for instance – also hark back to Lynch, a magnanimous gesture on the part of Villeneuve who, after Arrival and Bladerunner 2049, has nothing to prove in the realm of sci-fi.

Lynch was trying to make his version of Frank Herbert’s novel a David Lynch film, dreamy and out there, but his film also tugged in the opposite direction, towards the mainstream Star Wars-y sci-fi vision of his producers. Neither ended up getting what they wanted. Villeneuve, by contrast, can do exactly what he wants at this point in his career, having not made an artistic or financial mis-step since his mainstream breakthrough with 2010’s Incendies (though Enemy came close).

In short, Lynch’s is a mess, Villeneuve’s is a masterpiece, and there are a mass of reasons for both that go beyond the skill, talent and vision of either film-maker.

The story here remains the same – it’s the future and out in the galaxy somewhere the Emperor is worrying that he’s losing his grip on power. So he indulges in a bit of divide and rule with the two noble houses most likely to threaten him, by getting them to fight over a desert planet called Arrakis, source of Spice, the most valuable commodity in the known Universe, a substance with both practical and magical qualities. Not only is Arrakis (known as Dune) a sandy wastland, it’s infested with sandworms, predatory monsters that erupt from beneath the surface to devour whatever has disturbed them.

Josh Brolin and Oscar Isaac
Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin) with Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac)



On one side (boo) we have the Harkonnen, led by the fat and uncouth Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (almost unrecognisable Stellan Skarsgård), on the other (hooray), the slender and refined Atreides clan, headed by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), accompanied by his svelte consort Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and his son and heir Paul (Timothée Chalamet).

Paul is the focus, since this is a Jesus-Buddha-Mohammad-Luke Skywalker-Neo story of the callow youth overcoming obstacles and growing into a prophet/master of his own destiny, and Chalamet, it must be said, is perfectly cast as Paul, the proud yet delicate looks of the Renaissance princeling being ideal for what Villeneuve is laying down.

When Lynch made his Dune in 1984, Star Wars (which had borrowed so much from Frank Herbert’s book) was only seven years in the past. I’m guessing, but Lynch, possibly keen to avoid the charge of plagiarism, fought shy of leaning too closely into George Lucas’s vision. All these years later, Villeneuve has no such qualms and goes all in on the Star Wars ethos, borrowing its swagger, its “hey, kid” camaraderie and, to an extent, its look, especially in the many sandy sequences filmed in Jordan, the stand-in for Arrakis.

It’s got a medieval Game of Thrones glam thing going on too, and its narrative joys are similar – there is no really strong plot pulling us through, rather we’re expected to enjoy rolling around in the lore.

This Dune is all about world-building on the most massive of scales, yet there’s a fanatical attention to detail throughout, most obviously in the various flying vehicles, the cityscape on Arrakis and the sandworms (nod to Lynch). Villeneuve’s pique when Warners decided to stream it on HBO (Covid played a role here) is entirely understandable. He’d shot it for IMAX and though I’m not one of those “you really should see this in the cinema” wonks, for maximum effect here’s one you really should see in the cinema.

A visceral, spectacular experience that only gets to roughly the halfway point in Frank Herbert’s story, the rest of it coming in part two. “This is only the beginning,” says Chani (played by the much-trailed Zendaya, who’s clearly coming into her own in the next instalment). And you believe her. Please don’t make part two be like The Matrix Reloaded.



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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Enemy

Adam meets Anthony in Enemy

 

If there is such a thing as “what the hellness” then Denis Villeneuve’s latest film absolutely has it. But then the French-Canadian does have form. With Incendies Villeneuve managed to turn the conflict in the Middle East into a thriller with a reveal that disconcerted and amazed. In Prisoners he made us feel bad for suspecting that a lank haired, stuttering, educationally subnormal Paul Dano was a paedophile, and then made us feel bad for cutting such an obvious wrong’un too much slack.

The tricks are more playful in this latest exercise in duplicity. As with Prisoners, Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal, this time as Adam, a history professor who suddenly spots his spitting likeness in a movie he’s watching one night on his laptop when he should be snuggled up with his wife.

Instead of thinking “oh, that’s odd” and leaving it at that, Adam does a little digging, finds a few more films his doppelganger has been in, finds his agent, tracks down where he lives and then tentatively arranges a meeting, not realising that Anthony, the initially spooked actor also played by Gyllenhaal, might also have an agenda. Bizarrely, both men, when they meet, are so alike that there really is no gap between them, from the way they style their beards to the way they speak and react. And their partners (Adam’s is Mélanie Laurent; Anthony’s Sarah Gadon), each a good-looking blonde having a little relationship difficulty with her partner, seems to have the same problem too.

We’re very much in the sort of territory that late 1940s noir loved to wallow in – dark psychology, fractured personality, dreamscapes and hints of sexual deviancy. I haven’t mentioned the little vignettes that Villeneuve drops in of naked women in what looks like animal masks (it’s dark) slinking down long corridors? I have now.

At what point does the film leave reality behind? The answer is that it never really engages with it. It’s built inside a hall of mirrors – in real life there would be a thousand tells that would distinguish one person from another; here, Anthony even has a scar on his chest where Adam does. It doesn’t add up.

The plot is not the point though. It’s a vehicle for the mood of the thing. Has any recent film looked this queasily yellow? The colour of madness, cowardice, jaundice and death allied to a soundtrack of mournful clarinet, growling bassoon, honks of brass and nervous strings. The script is sparse, roads are empty, public spaces barely occupied, dialogue scarce but loaded. David Lynch is in there, in other words, though this is more “inspired by” than “lifted from”. And almost as proof here’s bizarro muse Isabella Rossellini as Anthony’s coolly unmaternal mother. Or was it Adam’s? Or are they the same person?

See it as an existential quest movie if you like – what is it that we are all searching for? Would having a doppelganger conveniently justify all our dark secrets, or scare the shit out of us? Both possibilities are examined in the closest that Gyllenhaal has got to this territory since Donnie Darko.

As for the ending, which suddenly makes all the psychological undertow overt in one laugh-out-loud shot, it’s Villeneuve’s raining-frogs-in-Magnolia moment, an abrupt full stop that signifies that he’s finished playing with us and we can all get back to whatever it was we were doing before. It’s going to irritate the hell out of people who haven’t been watching closely enough.

Enemy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014