In preparation for when Dune inevitably comes to Australian cinemas, I have resolved to watch every film by Denis Villeneuve. I’ve seen quite a few of his more prominent films already (Enemy, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049). Based on those, I consider Villeneuve to be my favourite director, which is my personal reason for wanting to watch the ones I haven’t seen yet. So I’m going to watch those in the order they were released and write about them.
Sidenote I’m also hoping to read the books of Dune first, but we’ll see how we go with that (not that that will be a series on here anyway).
Villeneuve’s debut film August 32nd on Earth, released in 1998, is a French-Canadian film (spoken predominantly in French) about a 26-year-old woman named Simone who, after sleeping through her car crash miraculously without getting severely injured, decides on making some pretty huge life changes.
She first quits her job in fashion since she has been overworked and little care has been given to her well-being despite how valuable she is. The next thing she does is contact her best friend Philippe and ask him to conceive a baby with her.
My interpretation as to why Simone wants to have a baby (aside from wanting to be a mother in general) is coming from a place of urgency. She almost dies at the beginning of the film, and I think it makes her realise her mortality and how important her having a happy life is. It comes across that she didn’t love her career beforehand, so the accident ends up being her final push to leave and go into motherhood. With the long term goal being; to be happy.
There’s also the possibility that her brush with death has triggered a subconscious reaction that starting a lineage is the closest to achieving immortality, but I digress.
Both Simone and Philippe are somewhat unreliable in relationships, and they’re also hard drinkers. And yet, they have this years-long genuine friendship. They’re also both in love with each other. And it is a love that is romantic. But because they want such different things from life and relationships that make them unconventional, that would have others view them as immature (which is valid on many points throughout the film), their planets don’t align.
And Simone knows this and simply wants to have a baby with someone she has familiarity with without obligations. Philippe agrees to this, and they make a deal to conceive a baby within 24 hours in a desert, so they travel to Salt Lake City to do the deed.
My impression of most of the film is that it is a Villeneuve venture that is romcom curious. Had it been in the hands of another director, the story’s premise and the nature of the characters would have had such an expected result. But because of the tone and interesting editing choices, it is not that at all.
Speaking about the editing choices, my first reaction to the editing was that it didn’t feel like a Villeneuve film as I know it today, but rather like a debut director. You know, kind of arthouse. Very auteur. The film is generally quiet and contemplative with huge cinematographic expanse that I expect of Villeneuve auteurism. And yet the editing was almost energetic, and I think it worked for this particular film though I can understand why Villeneuve might have wanted to walk away from that style.
However, it is crucial to point out that while August 32nd on Earth was directed and written by Villeneuve, he did not make the whole film. The editing was done by Sophie Leblond, who was also the editor for some of Villeneuve’s previous short films. And as far as I can tell, August 32nd on Earth is the only time she has served as editor for Villeneuve’s feature-length films and has predominantly worked on French-speaking cinema.
So the movie is not a rom-com. What is it then? Well, it’s a very horny film. Essentially the film asks the audience to be invested in the character’s motivation to fuck, and there’s a lot of building anticipation. So there you go.
But certain things keep getting in the way of them doing their sexual transaction, including finding a dead body. And in the end, they’re not able to go through with it*
And yes, that is not a typo; I meant the asterisk.
I suppose the dead body discovery adds once more to Simone’s growing anxiety about her own inevitable mortality.
I won’t say what happens at the end. I think that should be left unsaid, but it comes to a very uncomfortable conclusion. Luckily it’s not shown, but it gives a new meaning to the final shot of the rushing desert. And if you know anything about Villeneuve’s other films, you know he has explored uncomfortable territory since.
So when I was watching this film feeling like it was being romcom curious, horny but contemplative and somewhat removed from my expectations of Villeneuve, and then the ending happened, I was like, “there it is! This is where Villeneuve became.”
Do I recommend it? Well, I certainly appreciated it, but I don’t see myself fervently recommending it to anyone. But if you like French Arthouse, I think I absolutely would recommend it. It was also interesting to see where Villeneuve started and what he could do with a smaller scaler which that part is thanks to Andre Turpin the cinematographer. There’s also Villeneuve’s ability for telling an intimate story that has evolved from here, and it is pretty strong here, I would say maybe more so here. Also, despite pretty much being set in reality, the film does feature a lot of astronomical flourishes here and there. I mention this because Villeneuve is pretty much known for sci-fi now, so it was cool seeing that desire as early as this film about a couple who haven’t figured themselves out yet.