Denis Villeneuve is right: cinema is driven by the power of images, not dialogue

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Dune director Denis Villeneuve sparked some debate when he recently said that “Movies are corrupted by television.” But didn’t he have a point, Ryan wonders…?

In a terrific video posted a day or so ago by CineFix, director Denis Villeneuve shared some personal favourite shots from the films he’s made over the past decade.

What’s striking about his choices is that they’re almost certainly counter to the ones most people would pick out of his work. He doesn’t go for huge cinematic long shots or set-pieces, but rather more intimate shots that might have passed even some of his most dedicated fans by.

From Prisoners, the piano-string taut thriller he directed in 2013, he picks out a single dolly shot of a tree outside a suburban house. The way the camera presses in on the rough texture of its bark, he says, hints at the danger quietly snaking around the film’s characters.

From the sci-fi drama Arrival (2016), he selects a scene in which Amy Adams’ linguist walks alone in dusky landscape, an alien ship hanging over just over her shoulder, out of focus. This scene, he says, is designed to illustrate the character’s mental shift as she processes an otherworldly language entirely unlike our own.

Villeneuve’s choices say a great deal about both how his mind works and his taste as a filmmaker – how he tends to go for understatement rather than bold symbolism, and intimacy rather than grandiose scale for its own sake.

There’s something else significant about these shot choices, too: there’s barely a word of dialogue spoken in any of them. Not uncoincidentally, this ties in rather neatly with some comments recently published by The Times, in which Villeneuve said:

“Frankly, I hate dialogue. Dialogue is for theatre and television. I don’t remember movies because of a good line, I remember movies because of a strong image. I’m not interested in dialogue at all. Pure image and sound, that is the power of cinema, but it is something not obvious when you watch movies today. Movies have been corrupted by television.”

Scroll through Twitter/X (which, let’s face it, is often a mistake) and it looks as though Villeneuve’s assertion has sparked far more controversy than he perhaps intended. Reactions have ranged from variations on “my favourite films have quotable lines in them so you must be wrong” to simpler responses like “This is the worst take of all time.”

It’s clear, though, that Villeneuve is expressing his own philosophy of filmmaking here rather than telling everyone else how they should make movies. And in any case, the argument that cinema is first and foremost a visual medium shouldn’t be particularly controversial: cinema began purely as a moving image, and sound came later; as a result, the earliest filmmakers were forced to express an idea or tell a story through visuals alone.

From 1927’s The Jazz Singer onwards, filmmakers have, of course, been able to employ recorded dialogue, sound and music in their movies, and from Billy Wilder to Alexander Payne, from Hitchcock to Tarantino, we’ve seen outright classics of the medium that rely heavily on intelligent scripts and quotable dialogue.

arrival cinema amy adams denis villleneuve
Amy Adams in Arrival. Credit: Paramount.

What Villeneuve argues, though – rightly, this writer would argue – is that images and sound should be the engine that drives a cinematic story rather than words.

Most will be familiar with the old chestnut, “show, don’t tell”. It’s a phrase commonly bandied about by writers, the argument being that readers should understand an event or a character’s motivation through their actions rather than what they say or what is explained through the writer’s description.

That phrase could equally be applied to cinema, though. It’s far more powerful when an idea or a mood is conjured up through image and sound than a piece of dialogue. Go back to Villeneuve’s shot choices in that video (we’ve embedded it above because we’re thoughtful like that) and imagine them expressed out loud by a character instead.

For example, when Amy Adams steps outside into a twilight landscape, her mind overwhelmed by thoughts she can barely comprehend, imagine she exclaimed something along the lines of, “My god, my head. I think I’m going crazy.”

When Timothy Chalamet learns to ride a sandworm in the scene Villeneuve chooses from the upcoming Dune: Part Two, think what it would be like if Chalamet yelled, “Wow, taming a sandworm is way trickier than I thought”?

Both would be horribly on the nose but not necessarily wrong from a storytelling standpoint; they might even help some movie-goers grasp the sentiment Villeneuve is trying to get across. But in both instances, adding dialogue would arguably weaken each scene’s effect. Their impact lies in what Villeneuve (and his respective cinematographers) imply rather than explain.

“Now THIS is worm riding!” Something Timothee Chalamet most certainly didn’t say in Dune: Part Two. Credit: Warner Bros.

Away from Villeneuve’s own work, we can see elsewhere a shining example of how excessive dialogue can weaken a director’s original intent.

As released in 1982, Blade Runner came packaged with a flatly expositional voice-over from Harrison Ford, which explained what the audience was seeing in the most point-blank terms possible (“Sushi. That’s what my ex-wife called me. Cold fish”).

It was when that studio-mandated voice over was removed from the director’s cut, released in 1992, that Ridley Scott’s imagery was allowed to speak for itself. Audiences were able to look at Harrison Ford’s sullen Deckard and draw their own conclusions about his personal life. They could watch Roy Batty’s final moments and decide what his dying actions meant rather than have them explained (“…in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before,” Deckard droned in the theatrical cut.)

Blade Runner still has dialogue, of course – in Batty’s sign-off, some of the most memorable in sci-fi cinema – but removing the voice over from the film kicks away the crutch, leaving the visuals to stand by themselves.

When Villeneuve talks about “movies being corrupted by television,” it’s surely this sort of expositional, plot-carrying dialogue he’s talking about. Although TV increasingly shares attributes with cinema, it’s also true that movie-makers – perhaps encouraged by studio executives nervous that viewers won’t understand a plot point – have a tendency to over-explain.

Consider these two contrasting scenes: in Suicide Squad (2016), Jared Leto’s Joker has Margot Robbie’s Dr Harley Quinzel strapped to a table. Holding up a pair of electrodes, Joker says, “Oh I’m not gonna kill you. I’m just gonna hurt you really, really bad”.

Now take a look at a similarly threatening sequence in Sicario, directed by Villeneuve one year earlier.

In it, Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro walks into an interrogation room clutching a gigantic bottle snatched from a water cooler. We see there’s an anxious, middle-aged man tethered to a chair in the middle of a brightly-lit room. The camera dollies in, capturing the expression on the man’s face as Alejandro enters, slams the bottle on the cold concrete floor, and marches towards his victim.

Almost nothing of any consequence is said – at best it’s mumbled – and no violence is shown. The torture is only implied – which is what makes the scene all the more disturbing.

It’s a marked contrast to the Suicide Squad scene, which throws multiple filmmaking tricks at us – menacing dialogue, low camera angles, jagged, tricksy edits – to numbing effect.

To paraphrase that old adage: Suicide Squad tells; Sicario shows.

Towards the end of those shot choices Villeneuve makes in CineFix’s video, he’s asked to pick his favourite moment from another director’s movie. His selection is particularly revealing about his taste and philosophy as a filmmaker: it’s a shot from Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, Seven Samurai, and it shows two warriors sitting among some trees, partly obscured by the heads of dozens of little flowers. Visually, it’s beautiful, but it’s also filled with anticipation: just out of frame, a band of thieves is closing in.

Villeneuve takes a similar approach to suspense in his films; whether it’s a camera closing in on the texture of a tree in Prisoners, or dust falling from a curtain in Sicario, he has a talent for picking out unusual, seemingly incidental shots that are arresting to look at but also subtly generate tension – no dialogue required.

“For me, those are my favourite moments,” Villeneuve said when I asked him about some of those more low-key shot choices in 2017. “The idea is to try to bring poetry, to create images that will give a perspective, or a comment, or keys to the inner journey of the character through cinema. Through images. Images in cinema are poetic suggestion.”

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