Denis Villeneuve was born to parents Jean Villeneuve, a notary, and Nicole Demers, a homemaker, in the small town of Gentilly, Québec, near Trois-Rivières. Villeneuve is the eldest of four siblings, and his mother and grandmothers were strong feminist influences. Although he and his younger brother Martin both became filmmakers, Villeneuve’s parents weren’t particularly interested in cinema.
Villeneuve played hockey in his youth, but spent most of his time on the bench developing his imagination. The nearby cinema in Trois-Rivières was Villeneuve’s first film school where he discovered Star Wars and influences like Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick. He explored his skills making short films during high school, earning the nickname “Spielberg” from his friends.
After studying science at CEGEP, Villeneuve studied Communications with a concentration in film at the Université du Québec à Montréal. With his original and innovative reporting, he won Radio-Canada’s Europe-Asia Competition in 1991, which allowed him to direct a film for the National Film Board (NFB). But first, he travelled to the Arctic with legendary filmmaker Pierre Perrault to work on sets for the film Cornouailles.
The International Development Agency in collaboration with the NFB had chosen multiculturalism as the topic for Villeneuve’s NFB film, and he found himself in Jamaica shooting REW-FFWD (1994). The docudrama tells the story of a photographer who lands in unfamiliar territory when his car breaks down in a Trench Town ghetto. As the unseen driver puts aside his fears and stereotypical attitudes, Villeneuve uses interviews and photographs to create an essay on time and memory. The film won the prize of the New York Film Academy at the Locarno International Film Festival.
Villeneuve then made several music videos for various artists: Ensorcelée, for Daniel Belanger, won a Félix Award; Querer, for Cirque du Soleil, won three awards at the Yorkton Film Festival and a Much Music Video Award; and Tout simplement jaloux, for Beau Dommage, also won a Much Music Video Award (see also MuchMusic). Despite his success, Villeneuve has said that he disliked making the videos as he felt music was meant for the imagination.
Villeneuve then contributed the segment “Le Technétium” to producer Roger Frappier’s anthology film Cosmos (1996), which featured the work of fellow up-and-coming directors such as Manon Briand and André Turpin. Cosmos won the Prix International des Cinémas d’Art et d’Essai at the Cannes Film Festival and brought Villeneuve his first brush with the Oscar race when it became Canada’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film.
Early Feature Films
In 1998, Villeneuve directed his first feature film, Un 32 août sur terre (August 32nd on Earth), which stars Pascale Bussières as a woman on an odyssey to conceive a child after a car accident radically alters her life. It premiered in the Un certain regard competition at the Cannes Film Festival and toured more than 30 other festivals, winning Best Film at the Namur International Film Festival. It was also Canada’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.
Villeneuve’s breakthrough came with Maelström (2000), which centres on a young woman (Marie-Josée Croze) as she grapples with grief and guilt after killing a fishmonger in a hit and run. In a surreal and original stroke, Villeneuve had a dead fish narrate the drama. Maelström screened in more than 40 countries and received over 20 awards, including at festivals in Avignon, Berlin, Mons, Toronto, Montréal and Paris. Maelström won eight Jutra Awards (now Prix Iris) and five Genie Awards, including Best Film and honours for Villeneuve’s direction and screenplay at both ceremonies. Once again, Villeneuve’s film represented Canada in the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film.
Next Floor (2008)
Despite coming off his greatest success to date, Villeneuve then took a break to make commercials and to study film and screenwriting. After reconsidering his first films, he decided to make only projects that held significant meaning for him. Returning to shorts, he directed the surreal, allegorical and technically dazzling Next Floor (2008), a darkly funny drama about a macabre banquet. Next Floor screened at over 120 film festivals worldwide and won more than 50 awards, including the Grand Prix Canal + at Cannes International Critics’ Week, as well as the Genie and Jutra for Best Short Film.
Villeneuve’s desire for his next feature film to focus on significant subject matter was fulfilled when actor Karine Vanasse approached him about making a film about the 1989 Montreal massacre. Villeneuve and Vanasse obtained consent from the victims’ families and approached the project with maximum respect and sensitivity, but Polytechnique (2009) still drew considerable controversy for dramatizing the traumatic event. Shot in black and featuring a restrained performance by Maxim Gaudette as an unnamed killer, the film drew praise for refusing to sensationalize the bloodshed while honouring the victims by focusing on their experiences throughout the ordeal. Polytechnique was released in Canada in both French and English, and screened at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. It won numerous awards including Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), five Jutra Awards (including Best Director) and nine Genie Awards (including Best Film and Best Director).
Villeneuve gained international attention in the fall of 2010 with Incendies, a shattering adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s Governor General’s Award-winning play of the same name. The Canada-France coproduction, shot in Montréal and Jordan, depicts twin siblings Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxime Gaudet) trying to honour the final wish of their late mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal) by finding their father and brother in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Incendies traces a powerful story of migration and survival as it reconstructs Nawal’s journey as a freedom fighter and war prisoner in parallel with Jeanne and Simon’s search.
Villeneuve’s dark and foreboding yet highly accessible adaptation accentuated the elements of Greek tragedy embedded in Mouawad’s text, most notably the references to the tragedy of Oedipus. Incendies received near-unanimous acclaim upon premiering at the Venice Film Festival and went on to win the Best Canadian Feature Film Award at TIFF, along with dozens of international awards at many festivals. Incendies won eight Genie Awards and nine Jutra Awards, including Best Motion Picture and Best Director at both galas. It was also named one of the top ten films of 2011 by the New York Times and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Following the international acclaim of Incendies, Villeneuve was the subject of a career retrospective at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and was named one of Variety’s Top Ten Directors to Watch.
Enemy and Prisoners (2013)
Hollywood came knocking after the success of Incendies and Villeneuve followed with two major projects in 2013: the Canada-Spain co-production Enemy, which was shot and set in Toronto; and the Hollywood thriller Prisoners. An ambitious adaptation of author José Saramago’s novel The Double, Enemy features Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role as a meek history professor who descends into a psychological conflict after crossing paths with his doppelgänger, an arrogant and adulterous actor. The gripping yet cryptic psychological thriller drew upon Toronto’s concrete towers and labyrinthine condo compartments to create an eerie speculative atmosphere. Sullenly surreal and open to interpretation, Enemy proved divisive but received such honours as the Directors Guild of Canada Award for Best Feature film and five Canadian Screen Awards, including one for Villeneuve’s direction.
Villeneuve re-teamed with Gyllenhaal for the abduction drama Prisoners, co-starring Hugh Jackman, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard and Paul Dano.A thriller about a detective (Gyllenhaal) who investigates the disappearance of two young girls while one of their fathers (Jackman) takes matters into his own hands, Prisoners displayed the brooding atmosphere, complex psychology and sombre aesthetic that have become hallmarks of Villeneuve ‘s films. The $46-million production was both commercially and critically successful, earning $122 million at the worldwide box office and garnering such accolades as an Oscar nomination for Roger Deakins’s cinematography. Equally impressive was the fact that Villeneuve delivered both Enemy and Prisoners over an 18-month period.
The success of Prisoners affirmed Villeneuve’s talent to Hollywood, which he solidified with his next production, Sicario (2015). Villeneuve’s status had become strong enough for producers to grant him carte blanche and direct the film according to his own vision. Sicario echoed Villeneuve’s earlier works with its strong female protagonist, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), and unflinching descent into the more horrifying elements of the Mexican drug trade and the methods used to combat it. Villeneuve’s gritty and authentic vision firmly established him as an auteur on the world stage following the film’s premier in the official competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Sicario grossed over $86 million worldwide, earned three Oscar nominations and three BAFTA nominations, and made many critics’ Top 10 lists that year.
The critical and commercials success of Prisoners and Sicario allowed Villeneuve to make the leap to Hollywood blockbusters with his next picture, Arrival (2016). Adapted from the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang — which fellow Montréaler and filmmaker Shawn Levy recommended to Villeneuve — Arrival brought Villeneuve’s austere and thoughtful aesthetic to the science fiction genre. Starring Amy Adams as an intuitive linguist tasked with bridging communication between humans and aliens, Arrival was shot in Montréal and outside Rimouski, Quebec. The crew included some of Villeneuve’s frequent Québécois collaborators, including production designer Patrice Vermette, costume designer Renée April, and sound designer Sylvain Bellemare, who won an Oscar and a BAFTA for his work on the film.
Unlike most sci-fi blockbusters, however, Arrival had a modest budget of $46 million and relied on ideas, themes and substance instead of spectacular special effects. Arrival premiered at Venice, Telluride and TIFF, where it wowed critics and audiences with its thought-provoking premise, execution and themes. Other critics noted the relevance of Arrival’s parable on the power of language in the context of Donald Trump’s election as American President. Arrival received eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Achievement in Direction — the first ever for a Québec director — while Villeneuve also earned nominations for best director at the BAFTAs and the Director’s Guild of America Awards. Arrival went on to gross more than $185 million worldwide.
In 2015, it was announced that Villeneuve would direct the highly-anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi cult classic Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. In 2016, Villeneuve signed on to direct Jake Gyllenhaal in an adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s crime novel The Son,and in 2017 he was confirmed to direct the reboot of Frank Herbert’s notoriously difficult-to-adapt science fiction novel Dune.
Villeneuve’s films are typically dark and haunting psychological dramas that emphasize an atmosphere of foreboding doom. His films frequently concentrate on themes of trauma, identity and memory. With the exception of Enemy, Prisoners and Blade Runner 2049, his protagonists are strong and complex women. He frequently collaborates with cinematographers Roger Deakins, André Turpin and Nicholas Bolduc, and production designer Patrice Vermette.
Villeneuve announced his relationship with journalist Tanya Lapointe when they arrived together at the Cannes premiere of Sicario in 2015. He was previously in a long-term relationship with actress Macha Grenon and has three children from an earlier relationship.
- Best Direction (Maelström) (2001)
- Best Screenplay (Maelström) (2001)
- Best Live Action Short Drama (Next Floor) (2009)
- Best Direction (Polytechnique) (2010)
- Best Direction (Incendies) (2011)
- Adapted Screenplay (Incendies) (2011)
Prix Jutra (now Prix Iris)
- Best Direction (Maelström) (2001)
- Best Screenplay (Maelström) (2001)
- Best Short or Mid-length Film (Next Floor) (2009)
- Best Direction (Polytechnique) (2010)
- Best Direction (Incendies) (2011)
- Best Screenplay (Incendies) (2011)
- Best International Motion Picture (Incendies) (2012)
- Achievement in Direction (Enemy) (2014)
Vancouver Film Critics Association
- Best Director of a Canadian Film (Maelström) (2001)
- Best Director of a Canadian Film (Incendies) (2011)
- Best Director of a Canadian Film (Enemy) (2015)
Toronto Film Critics Association
- Best Canadian Film (Polytechnique) (2009)
- Best Canadian Film (Incendies) (2010)
- Best Canadian Film (Enemy) (2013)
- 20th Anniversary Award for Excellence (2016)
- Best Canadian Feature Film – Special Jury Citation (Maelström) (2000)
- Short Cuts Award – Honorable Mention (Next Floor) (2008)
- Best Canadian Feature Film (Incendies) (2010)
- Award of the New York Film Academy (REW FFWd), Locarno International Film Festival (1994)
- Best Videoclip of the Year (Enscorclée), Felix Awards (1994)
- Best of Festival (Querer: Cirque du Soleil), Yorkton Film Festival (1995)
- Best Music Video (Querer: Cirque du Soleil), Yorkton Film Festival (1995)
- Best Canadian Feature (Maelström), Montreal World Film Festival (2000)
- FIPRESCI Prize (Maelstöm), Berlin International Film Festival (2001)
- Prix SACD (Maelstöm), Avignon Film Festival (2001)
- Best Canadian Short Film (Next Floor), Atlantic Film Festival (2008)
- Best Canadian Short (Next Floor), Calgary International Film Festival (2008)
- Best Short Film (Next Floor), Gimli Film Festival (2008)
- Shortwork Award (Next Floor), Whistler Film Festival (2008)
- Best Short Film (Next Floor), Sitges Film Festival (2008)
- Canal+ Award for Best Short Film (Next Floor), Cannes Film Festival (2008)
- Directors’ Choice Award (Next Floor), Rhode Island International Film Festival (2008)
- Best Short Film (Next Floor), St. Louis International Film Festival (2008)
- Special Jury Prize (Next Floor), Seattle International Film Festival (2009)
- Best Short Film (Next Floor), Anchorage International Film Festival (2009)
- Best Narrative Short (Next Floor), Nashville Film Festival (2009)
- Best Drama Short (Next Floor), Aspen Shortsfest (2009)
- Best Short Film (Next Floor), Fantasporto International Film Festival (2009)
- Audience Award (Incendies), Cinéfest Sudbury (2010)
- Best Canadian Film (Incendies), Calgary International Film Festival (2010)
- Best Canadian Film (Incendies), Vancouver International Film Festival (2010)
- Best Canadian Film (Incendies), Atlantic Film Festival (2010)
- Grand Prix (Incendies), Warsaw International Film Festival (2010)
- Audience Award (Incendies), Valladolid International Film Festival (2010)
- Best Screenplay (Incendies), Valladolid International Film Festival (2010)
- National Arts Centre Award, Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards (2011)
- Audience Award (Incendies), International Film Festival Rotterdam (2011)
- Audience Award – Best Narrative Feature (Incendies), Portland International Film Festival (2011)
- Méliès d’Argent (Enemy), Sitges Film Festival (2013)
- Outstanding Director of the Year Award (Arrival), Santa Barbara International Film Festival (2017)
- Best Foreign Language Film (Arrival), Cinema Brazil Grand Prize (2017)