Empathy Through Objects: The Films of Dennis Villeneuve

Arrival (2016), Dennis Villeneuve
Warning: Spoilers follow for Arrival, Sicario, Incendies, Prisoners and Enemy.

Denis Villeneuve’s latest movie, Arrival (2016), is about a linguist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is enlisted by the American Military to help them establish first contact with aliens who visited the earth in a clam-like vessel. Similar UFO’s landed in eleven different locations worldwide. Much of the film deals with the differing opinions internationally regarding how they should respond to the titular arrival.

Another way in which differing points of view and (mis)communication crops up, is the way in which Louise eventually establishes contact with the aliens. She namechecks the Sapir-Whorf theory, which states that our perception of the world is tied in with which language we speak. When Louise eventually learns the language of the alien visitors, her point of view regarding time and space gets rearranged. She sees time as circular now, instead of linear, which means she experiences the future, the past and the present interchangeably. She is the first human to experience passage of time this way, ensuring other miscommunications in the future with those who don’t. The theme of (mis)communication is even furthered by calling the alien duo Abbot and Costello, famous for their pun-worthy gags about people talking straight past each other.

Louise learns the language in written form (as the sounds the aliens make are not correspondent to their written language), in the shape of a circular inkblot, like the pen stroke of an ancient calligraphist, with squishy appendages dictating the meaning of the shape. The fact that the way in which Louise relates to the aliens is through a tactile, three-dimensional shape is on par for the course for Denis Villeneuve. Arrival is not the first film in which characters and viewers learn to perceive each other’s differing point of view by their relation to tactile objects. This was even the case for his drug-thriller Sicario (2015).

Film is a Girl and a Gun

If the penultimate scene of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario feels anticlimactic, this is entirely by design. The confrontation between the main protagonist, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and the secondary protagonist/antagonist, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), is all about her lack of power and his position of power. We know exactly who has the upper hand because of one object: the gun with which they both threaten each other. He uses the small pistol to get her to sign a paper which states that nothing unlawful happened in Mexico, a notion that the bloodshed in the rest of the movie disproves. She first refuses to sign, but the way in which Alejandro quietly pushes the gun up to her chin, convinces her to concede. He does not have to use his words to convince her he means business: his threat is silent but clear. The gun is the focal point of every shot in which Kate is threatened. It is dead centre of the frame and pushes Kate partly out of the frame through its upward movement. Kate is pushed out of her own movie by an inanimate, but deadly object.

Sicario (2015), Dennis Villeneuve

After signing the paper, Kate turns the tables when Alejandro leaves the apartment. She points the gun at him, again the centre of attention, until he turns around because then it is clear she poses no threat at all: she can’t pull the trigger. The gun, now slightly off-centre, trembles, showing him her body language. She’s visibly shaking. Earlier in the same scene when he moved the gun around, it was as if it was an extension of his arm: always the focal point of the shot, always handled with a swift certainty. He had the power to kill her, and she does not have the power to kill him, the gun confirms this. He also knows, and this gives him even more power. The film ends with the main protagonist unable to change her situation and the antagonist getting away, all told with the way they handle a gun. The gun being the true centre of the scene that played out, both visually and emotionally.

Villeneuve’s Sicario was met with a rapturous reception, but there were some people who found the lack of closure and the way the film denied the protagonist any power, hard to swallow. That victory was not meant to be is first signalled in the middle of the film when the story shifts perspective from Kate to Alejandro for an extended stretch. She tries to stop him from breaking the law and he responds by shooting her point blank in her bulletproof vest. In response, the films sticks to his perspective for some 20 minutes, leaving Kate side-lined. Villeneuve upends the common Hollywood story structure to make a point about the state of drug cartels and the law in Mexico: almost everybody is in over their head, nobody has the power, and only Sicario’s (hitmen) survive.


Sicario did not come as a surprise for long-time followers of Villeneuve as both these tropes are emblematic of his entire output. In all his films, Villeneuve likes to switch perspective between two or more protagonists, even if we initially start out with one. Time and time again, he places emphasis on objects and how his characters react to them. As with the gun in Sicario, we know the differences in the world-view of his protagonists entirely in how they relate to objects. These objects of heightened significance — let’s call them totems — are endowed with almost religious purpose through lingering close-ups. They show either the insuperable differences between the characters, or confirm that their morals are aligned. By engaging with these objects, the characters influence each other’s point of view: their actions have consequences for others in the story.

This has never been clearer than in Villeneuve’s breakthrough-film Incendies (2010). The film is a thriller with an intricate plot in which the story is set in motion through means of a macguffin, two letters, collectively representing one of four main totems. A brother and a sister, twins, are asked to deliver two letters after their mother’s death. One to their unknown father and one to their brother, previously unknown to them. The letters themselves serve as a crux for an investigation into the haunted story of a family and a religious war. The purpose of which is only revealed in the final scene, where both letters are delivered to the same person. The twins are the product of incestuous rape, the true nature of the relationship between abuser and victim (son and mother) unknown to either of them. The letter for the father condemns the abusive side of this person, the letter for the son is one of forgiveness. Taken together, they tell an ambiguous story: one of both love and hate, guilt and grace. How all four protagonists relate to those two objects, the letters, is in the end a story of a burden for the twins, an exorcism for the mother, and both burden and exorcism for the father/brother.

Incendies (2010), Dennis Villeneuve

Grasping Trauma Through Objects

The reveal of the true nature of the abuser is given away by a totem, shown in the first scene and shown in one of the last scenes: the tattoo on the heel of the son/abuser. In one of the first scenes, Villeneuve lets the camera push into a close-up of the three dots on the heel of a child soldier, later established as a mark given by his mother, Marwan, so she will always recognize him when she has to give him up. When she eventually recognizes him in a swimming pool in Canada, on the other side of the world as they both started in an unnamed middle-eastern country, she also recognizes him as the prison guard who raped her multiple times and impregnated her with twins. The shock is too much to bear and the rest of her live is spent in catatonia with rare lucid moments. The totem in this way shows that one character who is most loved is also the person who is most hated, the multiple ways of viewing this totem, not in equilibrium with each other, until two other totems are created in response. Only when those two letters are read in unison can Marwan rest in peace.

The two other totems, buses and swimming pools, also show this struggle to re-align points of view and the consequences of the actions of others. The pool is the central place in which the trauma starts: Marwan swimming and seeing the three dots of doom on the heel of her son on the poolside. The pool is shown frequently, sometimes in winter, showing the open wound it represents while the mystery isn’t solved. The realization for the twins that they are the product of incest is immediately followed by a dive in a swimming pool where their violent swimming movements seem like a way of exorcising their demons, to wash the sins of their father off them. Pools in this way, are deeply aligned with the familial trauma: a totem representing the urge to dive under the surface and to eventually be re-birthed and baptized by diving into the deep end. In a way, the several times we see the twins swimming is a reminder that they don’t share their mother’s traumatic point of view in regards to pools yet, thus it’s fitting that their final understanding of their mother’s plight is commemorated in the pool.

Incendies (2010), Dennis Villeneuve

Earlier we saw the impossibility of understanding the mother’s trauma, represented by a bus. Following a truly gut wrenching scene in which Marwan is the sole survivor of religious genocide on the inhabitants of a bus, we see her daughter Jeanne, traveling in the same area in a similar bus, listening to some music, totally zen, safe and unafraid. She may travel the road her mother had taken but she will never truly understand it. It seems fitting her father, the rapist, is working in Canada in a bus depot, another reminder he is brutally unaware of the traumas inflicted on his mother, by others and by him.

Prisoners (2013), Villeneuve’s follow-up, doubled-down on villainous totems. The true culprits of a kidnapping have a fetish for mazes, pendants, snakes, and bottles of mescaline-laced Coca-Cola but the true culmination of Villeneuve’s obsession with fractured story structures and totems must be Enemy (2013).

Objects and Objectivication

Enemy is a story with two lead characters, but in this case, they may be one and the same. It is hinted throughout the movie that Adam, a university lecturer, and the actor Anthony, his antagonist doppelgänger, may be two sides of the same person. Anthony may be living vicariously through Adam (who is our main vantage point in the movie), acting out his adulterous habit by slipping into the persona of the meek college professor, while his pregnant wife stays at home. When Adam seeks out his alter-ego, the characters blur and basically swap wives. We can track which persona Adam inhabits by his reaction to blueberries. Adam doesn’t like blueberries, and stresses this to his girlfriend, while Anthony expects his pregnant wife to stack the fridge with them. When Adam finally takes on the persona of Anthony at the end his reaction to the blueberries is appreciative. We can track this change in persona earlier in the movie when Adam visits his mother who insists he loves blueberries (like Anthony does). Anthony’s mother meanwhile is constantly off-screen but is described as a glamorous but cold matriarch, which is exactly how Isabella Rossellini plays Adam’s mother.

Enemy (2013), Dennis Villeneuve

It seems fitting, for a film about a cheating scumbag living out his misogynist fantasies through an alter-ego, that the female characters are all played as sexist archetypes: the pregnant wife, the nagging girlfriend, the cold mother, and the black widow. Throughout the film, spiders are established as a totem. We see Anthony visiting a club, which can only be accessed with a gold key, where a stripper stomps on a spider for a paying audience of leering males. Later we see the same stripper walking through a corridor with the fangs of a tarantula were her mouth should have been. Women and spiders are conflated, like the giant spider stomping through Toronto after Adam visits his mother. The giant spider, itself a reference to the sculpture Maman (“Mother”) by Louise Borgeois, is the nightmare Adam/Anthony has regarding women like his mother and the mother of his child: predatory black widows capturing him in his web. He wants to be a free man, sow his oats, sleep around. Everyone who tries to stop that is a spider, a monster. The city itself is the web, with the telephone wires its threads.

There is no way out, not even in death, where even the broken glass of a crashed car resembles a web.

The conflating of the totem with all female characters in the film is driven home when Adam finds Anthony’s key for the next strip-show. Adam informs Anthony’s wife, who stills thinks he is the infamously adulterous Anthony, that he is going out that evening, which seems to fit into Anthony’s pattern of infidelity. In response, his wife his silent. When he goes to her room, she has turned into a humongous spider, cowering in fear. The look of indifference on Adam’s/Anthony’s face seems again a conformation of his misogyny. He has literally turned his wife into a totem, a prop, a thing. He has completed the ultimate objectification of women. Villeneuve here brings all his themes and tropes home in one single swoop: the world view of two very different characters (Anthony/Adam) align by the ultimate objectification of a totem. Going by the extreme pain the spider seems to be in, the message of these tropes still seems to be the same. Actions do have consequences, even on totems.

Enemy (2013), Dennis Villeneuve

The End of the Totem

Which brings us back to Arrival. Where Arrival differs from the earlier examples is that, even though Denis Villeneuve still uses a character who learns to understand an (truly) alien point-of-view by discerning meaning from an object, the experience in this film is singular. We see everything from Louise’s point of view, first before her life-changing embrace of the totem, and then afterwards. This makes Arrival feel hermetic, more claustrophobic. When we learn that in the future Louise marries her co-worker Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and he divorces her because she tells him about the future death of their daughter, we learn so from her point of view. He isn’t depicted at all in the flash-forwards.

Another way in which the film differs is that it remixes the idea that actions do have consequences. Yes, Louise’s marriage fails because she sabotages it with her actions, but she knows this beforehand. Furthermore, she saves the day by acting upon the consequences she has seen laid out in her future. She knows the phone number to the Chinese General Shang, who threatened to nuke the aliens, just because he told her so several years afterwards. The logic in Arrival is circular: actions do have consequences, but those actions are made because the consequences are known beforehand. If Enemy signposts the culmination of Villeneuve’s obsession with totems and the effects of human behaviour, then Arrival is the collapse of the totem unto itself. Empathy and consequence have been replaced by navel-gazing and determinism.

Arrival (2016), Dennis Villeneuve
This Essay article was published in March 2017