Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve receives an honorary degree from Université du Québec à Montréal rector Robert Proulx on Tuesday. ‘I’m a professional dreamer,’ Villeneuve told the graduates at his alma mater. ‘To earn my doctorate, it took me 30 years.’
Denis Villeneuve pulled out two speeches, as he took the podium at Place des Arts’ Salle WilfridPelletier, Tuesday morning.
The acclaimed filmmaker is, of course, no politician. He was not holding a victory speech and a concession speech, but rather two versions of his advice for graduating students of his alma mater, Université du Québec à Montréal’s (UQAM) communications program.
Clad in a long black robe and sporting a bashful grin, Villeneuve was there to receive an honorary doctorate. He began with a story.
“A few years ago, I had the pleasure of adapting a novel by José Saramago, The Double, which became my film Enemy. The film tells the story of a history professor, who is intelligent but timid, and is obsessed by the cycles of repetition of humanity. One day, he meets his double, who is vain and narcissistic, and one tries to eliminate the other. But the forces of the unconscious are much stronger than the professor believes, and the spider (a recurring, nightmarish vision in the movie) is reincarnated. It’s not my best film, but it’s my most honest.
“It’s no coincidence that I have two speeches. I won’t read the first, which I’m very proud of. I wrote it a while ago. But I woke up in the middle of the night and realized I had it all wrong. I wrote this second speech for you graduates. I wrote it at dawn, when most of you were negotiating with strange images troubling your unconscious.”
Villeneuve joked that he is no example to follow.
“To earn my doctorate, it took me 30 years,” he said, “and more than $300 million,” the latter number a reference to the combined budgets of his films including Blade Runner 2049, Arrival, Sicario, Prisoners, Incendies and Polytechnique.
“Time doesn’t have the same value for you as for me,” he admitted. “That took me an eternity to understand. I like to watch the trees grow. The force to accelerate requires enormous energy. The only thing that gets me moving in life is the explosion of cinema.”
He had no wise words on this day, Villeneuve insisted. But he did share a key tool to his artistic development, which he wished someone would have let him in on a long time ago:
“Therapy,” he said. “I have a warning, and I hope that it is completely useless. I imagine you’re all very serene and free of the shadows of your genetic heritage. But if you’re like me, and know nothing of Socrates and his understanding of the self, I offer you this warning.
“I’m a professional dreamer. My job is to build bridges between dreams and reality, and they pay me well to do so. I travel often into my own subconscious. I’ve met very few adults in my life who have conquered their shadow. If you’re like me, and like most decision-makers today, find a good therapist. They’re very rare, but they exist. It’s really the best advice I can give you today. With all my affection, I wish you luck, and beware of spiders.”
Following the ceremony, the director confided that the timing of the honour couldn’t be better.
“It touches me profoundly,” he said. “And it comes at a moment in my career when I feel I must take a break. I have to reflect on how I will evolve as a filmmaker, how to renew myself.
“And to receive recognition from my alma mater, the university that formed me, teachers who radically influenced me in my development — it’s here that I learned the ABCs of cinema and cinematic language — is a nice coincidence.”
Having just finished the first round of Oscar campaign appearances for Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve is hard at work on the script for his next film, adapting another sci-fi classic, Frank Herbert’s Dune. “I’m renewing with an old pleasure that I hadn’t felt in a long time,” he said. “I hadn’t returned to writing since Incendies. I’ve worked on the scripts for my last four films, but they were all quite far along.
“I’m going back to my early days as a filmmaker, working with a writer I admire, a master who inspires me a lot. Writing gives me energy. Dune will be a long adaptation. It’s going to take time to write; it’s hard.”
Though he has achieved success in Hollywood, Villeneuve insisted that his creative journey is not a blueprint budding directors should feel pressured to follow.
“The objective is not to go to Hollywood,” he said. “The objective is to try to make films that are our own. Myself, as a filmmaker, the cinema I wanted to make is closer to the cinema south of the border. But a whole important cinema has to be made (right here). I hope UQAM graduates have the chance to make their films.”
In lieu of celebrating his newly minted degree, Tuesday evening, Villeneuve was preparing to fête the cinematic accomplishment of someone close to him.
“My daughter is studying cinema, and it’s the first screening of her short film,” he said, beaming.
Like father, like daughter. Yet Villeneuve’s offspring is already showing a rebellious spirit. She’s at Concordia.