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Denis Villeneuve: Repping Canada in Oscar race

10 Directors to Watch

Denis Villeneuve recognizes how easily ambition can be mistaken for arrogance. “I’m not always proud of this side of me, and it may be getting worse,” concedes the Canadian director, who earned considerable acclaim at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals for his mightily ambitious drama, “Incendies,” which traces two siblings’ continent-spanning investigation into their Middle Eastern mother’s complicated past.

The film, which was selected to represent Canada in the Oscar foreign-language race, folds together boiling familial tensions with the political-religious cauldron of recent Lebanese history. It represents a further expansion of range and seriousness in a body of feature work that began 12 years ago with the low-key, generally well-liked road movie “32nd Day of August on Earth.” Two years on, Villeneuve surprised his followers with the ultra-quirky, surrealist “Maelstrom,” which famously featured a talking fish spouting philosophy while lying on a fishmonger’s chopping block.

“There were many bad mistakes I made in both of those films, especially the writing, which isn’t very good,” admits Villeneuve, who adapted “Incendies” from Wajdi Mouawad’s celebrated play. “I always follow the perspective that I’m a student learning, and I knew that I needed to learn from my mistakes. Had I gone on to make a ‘Maelstrom 2,’ that would have been my last film, period.”

Instead, Villeneuve took his time considering his next move. The former musicvideo maker didn’t return to that medium but instead opted for commercials “since there’s no fund in Canada for ‘personal development,’?” he says. “I was very lucky to have the time to really study cinema more deeply, learn more about mise en scene and think about what kinds of films I wanted to make. I respect cinema too much to just make money with it. A film must be deeply important for me or else I simply won’t make it.”

His re-emergence in 2009 with the shocking and elegantly staged “Polytechnique” — re-creating the horrific events of the 1989 massacre at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique — occurred just as a wave of fellow Quebecois filmmakers (including Denis Cote, Catherine Martin and Xavier Dolan) made a splash in the international festival world.

With “Incendies,” Villeneuve says, “I was trying to be more subtle and find powerful images in a simpler way, not showing off. I have ambitions, but this time, I was trying to be humbler.”

Age: 43
Homebase: Montreal, Canada
Inspired by: “Ingmar Bergman is the cinematographic god. My favorite film is ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ because Kubrick is the master of vertigo.”

10 Directors to Watch
Looking for the next big thing
Richard Ayoade | Daniel Espinosa | Ed Gass-Donnelly | Elgin James | Patrick Lussier | Baran Bo Odar | Andre Ovredal | Denis Villeneuve | Juanita Wilson | Jason Winer

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