Exploring a consistent theme in the filmography of one of today’s best working filmmakers.
In the 7 years since Incendies was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2010, Dennis Villeneuve has been making films at an impressively fast rate. Having recently released Blade Runner 2049, I’d like to take a look at a recurrent theme in Villeneuve’s films: the theme of fertility and motherhood. It’s not the first thing you think of when you think of Villeneuve, and yet this theme is present in every single film except Sicario and Polytechnique.
Spoilers for pretty much every Dennis Villeneuve movie below.
Villeneuve isn’t concerned so much with the physical reality of pregnancy, but rather its symbolism. For Villeneuve, having a child is an exercise in ultimate creativity. Its making life from the smallest of parts, or from the biggest trauma. And embedded in that creativity is the mystery that often ensues in his films. A lot of Villeneuve’s are structured as circular narratives, looping towards the answer and back to the question. Who is my mother? My father? How does that change who I am? Indeed, in both Arrival and Incendies, the big reveal is who the father is. Yet, neither film derives its emotional intensity from the need to answer that question. You get the sense that his characters always felt helpless; like the cards were stacked against them. The answer doesn’t so much solve, as confirm the anguish. Yet, for Villeneuve, life is always worth it. Even if you are raped, or know that your child will die, it’s worth the pain. Just as an aside, I think it would be a mistake to assume any direct political stances, although others clearly have. It’s interesting then that one of his earlier films from Maelstrom begins with the female lead having an abortion. A foreshadowing of the man she runs over and kills later on in the film, the abortion is an omen. It’s also our introduction to the character, a ballsy move as it can divide the audience from the get-go. But Villeneuve is more interested in the symbolic potential of birth, rather than abortion.
Birth is often a placeholder for the unknown other. After all, sci-fi is always about the other, even if that other is growing inside you. And in Arrival, by communicating with the other, Amy Adams’ character has visions of her child, of her future. And this unknown works the other way too. In Incendies, the two children are each given a letter by their mother Nawal, after she’s died. The letter instructs each to go find their father, and their brother respectively. The third act reveals that they are one in the same person. Just as communicating with the heptapods in Arrival condenses linear time, rape and incest condense the family tree.
In Enemy, Helen’s (Sarah Gadon) pregnancy is met more with fear, than veneration. The fantastique film is more about male anxiety than female agency. Helen is Adam’s wife. Her very pregnant belly is a reminder of how much his life will change once he becomes a father and settles down. Whether you believe that Adam and Anthony are twins separated at birth, or one is a psychic projection, the two women Helen and Mary are pawns in the men’s game. They are both alternatives, one from the other. The Virgin and the Whore. I mean, even the names are Biblical. What’s funny is that Dennis Villeneuve stated in an interview that he made the film because he wanted to make a film about female intimacy, and yet that intimacy is only viewed through the lens of the male doppelgangers.
And finally, Blade Runner. Since Blade Runner 2049 has come out, I’ve been reading reviews left, right and center. Dazzled by Roger Deakins’ vision of the future, and impressed by the film’s development from the original film, I felt seduced by the film’s neat and calculated plot and aesthetic. However, I felt uneasy about the film’s politics. Are they regressive or reformist? On the one hand, I understand that all the female characters, especially Luv and Joi, are literal products of the patriarchy. They are made by and for men. So in some ways, it would be inconsistent if they proved to be independently minded women. In many ways, Blade Runner is about the trafficking and control of women. But on the other hand, the story is told entirely from the perspective of a white dude. The film could’ve easily made its argument about Niander Wallace’s imperialist desire to play God while also having nuanced and diverse characters. In a way, Blade Runner 2049 does a similar thing as Aronofsky’s mother!: ironically, by attempting to allegorize female fertility, it fails to accurately represent the female’s experience of fertility and motherhood. When can we go beyond the allegory? Moreover, K sacrifices himself for Dr. and Deckard. The whole film purports “the future is female” ideology, while in actuality renegading females to the sidelines. The final shot of the film, after all, is K, not Dr. He may be irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but he’s still the hero of this narrative. So, one thing is for sure, the film certainly isn’t as progressive as many would’ve hoped.
So, Dennis Villeneuve has returned again and again to the theme of motherhood and pregnant women. Fertility is a common theme in sci-fi, especially dystopian sci-fi (Children of Men is the prime example of that). And when used well in other films, can easily imbue the film with a sense of emotional urgency. Arrival is a great example because Louise is a mother, but isn’t valued or defined for her motherhood. She is introduced to us first and foremost as a world-class linguist. And it’s not to say that “feminist” films can’t portray female characters as primarily mothers. In fact, in Sicario there’s not even a hint of Emily Blunt as a mother. But Villeneuve’s films that offer the most interesting characters are the ones that don’t portray characters as vessels for symbolism.