There's a crop of fresh directors springing up across the country. Calgary's got Gary Burns, Jim Allodi is making waves in T.O., and Vancouver's Reginald Harkema is making a big impression, too. But none of these promising filmmakers can match Montreal's Denis Villeneuve's imaginative storytelling and visual audacity. A Villeneuve film makes weirdly elegant narrative leaps, and you can almost hear him snickering behind the camera, enjoying the spectacle he's throwing at audiences.
He's made two features: his 1998 debut, August 32nd On Earth, and Maelström, the film that kicked off the Perspective Canada series at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.
Maelström tells the story of Bibiane (Marie-Josée Croze), the self-involved daughter of a late, great fashion designer. Bibiane's life is a mess, and it gets even worse when she hits a pedestrian while driving drunk. Overwhelmed by guilt, she decides to find out what happened to her victim, setting off a chain of unlikely coincidences and karmic cleansings that change her life.
Oh, and you need to know that the film is narrated by an ancient talking fish that's being chopped to pieces.
"Some people think it's very serious, but I don't agree," says Villeneuve. "I think the film is funny. For me, it's a playful call to be responsible for each other. But I'm also interested in exposing an emotional life, to see what's happening inside a person, as close to real life as you can get. I want those moments when people are feeling powerful things."
Villeneuve has a way of making everything that comes out of his mouth sound playful, and it's not just because he has a lilting Quebecois accent and a boyish smile. As he slides into a chair in a room at the Hotel Intercontinental, he looks elated. It's the beginning of the film festival, and Maelström is earning rave reviews in a year when the response to the rest of the Canadian film program has been distinctly underwhelming.
He's already a known quantity in Quebec, where he started out making short films and French-language music videos, including Cirque du Soleil's Querer. Those projects earned him an armload of awards and led producer Roger Frappier to include Villeneuve in his Montreal omnibus film Cosmos. From there, he went on to make August 32nd and Maelström.
He's enthralled by life, and his films are all about people's attempts to unravel its mysteries. In August 32nd, Pascale Bussiéres plays a woman who survives a car crash and decides to have a baby with her guy pal. They head off to the Utah desert to get pregnant, and from there the film focuses on their undefined relationship: why didn't they get together sooner, why are they compelled to do so now, and what's the meaning of love anyway?
Ironically, before Villeneuve started work on Maelström, he was plugging away at a script that was much more personal. But he was blocked, stumped by his own life experiences.
"That script was too, too personal," he notes. "It wasn't working, so I turned to my friends. Maelström is based on three people rolled into one, but mostly it's based on a woman friend of mine."
Which is what I find appealing about Villeneuve. He has that ability to get into the heads of female characters. A lot of male writer/directors spend their careers trying to get it right, so when a man comes along who does it well, I'm more than a little curious about his resources.
"I just love writing for women. I think I have a strong feminine side -- ask my wife -- and I love women. Women express themselves more than men, and I can write about their problems. Men just aren't as interesting, and I have tried to write movies with male leads."
It's therefore no surprise that Ingmar Bergman is one of his cinematic heroes. Bergman, perhaps the greatest director of women ever, keeps Villeneuve inspired.
"Look at Cries And Whispers. You just can't believe he wrote and directed that. It's so beautiful and poetic, and that's what I want to be able to do.
"When I look at Maelström, the result is less crude than I expected, less wild than I hoped it would be. I wanted to go deeper in terms of how the characters reacted to each other. That's what Bergman did so well.
"It's very easy to direct an actor to react in an obvious way. Sometimes I was looking for reactions that were awkward, and I wasn't able to explain that fully to the actors. I'll get better at that."
And what would Villeneuve be doing if he weren't compelled to direct?
"I think I would have been a baker. I know a couple, a husband and wife, who run a bakery near my home, and I see them kneading the dough, making the bread, and I think that is what I could do."
Villeneuve's description has a sweet, sexual tone that I point out to him.
"Well, the wife, she's a beautiful woman. But I realize you have to get up way too early to go to work."
MAELSTROM, written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, produced by Roger Frappier and Luc Vandal, with Marie-Josée Croze, Jean-Nicolas Verreault and Stéphanie Morgenstern. A Max Films production. An Odeon Films release. 88 minutes. Opens Friday (October 13). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page XX.
MAELSTROM Rating: NNNN
Bibiane's (Marie-Josée Croze) world is falling apart. Her fashion designer mother is dead, she's run her own clothes shop into the ground, and she's lost her unborn baby. Her life comes to a halt when she hits a man while driving drunk. Overcome by guilt, Bibiane searches for her victim to discover if he survived, and in the wake of her investigation falls in love with his son.Hope and dread intermingle in almost every scene - lives seem alternately ruled by destiny or karma. But it's also a very funny film. I love Denis Villeneuve's exuberance, his obvious love for cinema and grand statements. Croze gives a tortured performance but stops short of sinking into an emotional morass. Stéphanie Morgenstern shines as Croze's supportive friend. Her work in Maelström and The Sweet Hereafter make a case for this perpetual supporting actor to get a shot at anchoring a film of her own.