Denis Villeneuve Thinks Movies Talk too Much

Great filmmakers generate conversation about film, and Denis Villeneuve is doing that even outside of his movies. The director, whose Dune: Chapter Two opens this week, spoke to the UK newspaper The Times about his new film and said that he doesn’t like dialogue and that it is a detriment to films. Well, kind of; he said a lot, and I tend to think he’s mostly venting, but it’s still an illuminating statement. The Times is behind a paywall, but here’s the relevant quote as reported by Variety:

“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… In a perfect world, I’d make a compelling movie that doesn’t feel like an experiment but does not have a single word in it either… People would leave the cinema and say, ‘Wait, there was no dialogue?’ But they won’t feel the lack.”

I know this probably sounds like I’m apologizing for him because I like him, but I doubt he wants to excise dialogue from movies entirely, aside from that one pie-in-the-sky film he’s talking about making. He likely sees film as a visual medium to the extent that the visuals should be the primary vehicle through which to communicate, with dialogue being an appendage rather than a vital organ. And that’s fair; for a time, movies didn’t have sound, yet they existed, and people liked them. But I also think dialogue is more important than he’s suggesting, especially if he takes it to the extent that it’s always unnecessary. And if you look at his movies, you can see how he feels about this; they’re visually stunning, and I do remember the images more than the dialogue in Dune and Blade Runner 2049, for example. On the other hand, I remember some of the great lines from Sicario, like “This is the land of wolves now,” or Josh Brolin’s desperation to keep Emily Blunt from going into a bank they’re monitoring. (“Don’t go in the bank! “Don’t go in the bank! She’s going in the bank.”)

But the reality is that visuals and dialogue work in tandem. It’s kind of a copout, I know, but it’s true. Think of some of the great scenes in movie history. Let’s use one of the most famous movie moments of all time, the ending of Casablanca, as an example. Everyone knows the scene where Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine tells Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa she has to get on the plane and leave him, sacrificing his chance at a future with her for the greater good of stopping Hitler. If you’ve never seen it and don’t want to watch the whole movie (although I recommend you do; it’s a classic that absolutely lives up to its reputation), you can watch the scene here:

The visual language of this scene is wonderful. We can see what’s happening on the actors’ faces: the sadness that comes with Ilsa’s slow realization that she must leave Rick, the love she thought she’d discarded and miraculously found again, combined with Rick’s steely resolve that he must give up all that he lost and finally got back, being strong for her as much as for himself. The close-ups, the camera quickly pushing in on them to show us the real world forcing its way into the fairy tale they’d created and must now close for good. It’s all there without a word. And yet, there are the words. Everyone remembers, “We’ll always have Paris,” not just because it’s a great line in itself but because it’s the perfect button for both of their character arcs and the movie itself, the one bit of happiness that no one can take from them, even the Nazis. Everyone remembers, “You’ll regret it; maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life,” because it’s the ugly truth at the heart of the storybook ending, the one where they hate themselves for the people who would suffer so they could be happy. An already perfect scene is made legend because of the dialogue.

On the other hand, you can go too far with dialogue, which a lot of films do now, and that’s what I think Villeneuve means when he says they’ve been “corrupted by television.” It’s the sitcom thing, where a character will make some sort of declaration, see another character do something silly, then say, “On the other hand…” as the theme song kicks in. That’s happening more and more in film, the idea that someone needs to say something to make light of every situation. Look at Marvel, for example. Everyone notices that the movies punctuate what should be serious scenes with a bad joke or just what hacky writers think is a witty remark. In Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the embarrassingly awful version of MODOK has what the writers think is a character arc and dies a heroic death, having sacrificed himself to save the multiverse. (That not an ounce of this is earned is not important for this discussion.) But as he’s dying, the other characters and the film itself cannot stop making fun of him, with Scott Lang scoffing at the idea that MODOK could call himself an Avenger, relentless sight gags, and dialogue that simply will not take a break for two seconds. I’ll bet this is what is pissing off Villeneuve: moments like this can’t breathe because the dialogue is like confetti fired out of a cannon.

Marvel used to know when to pull back. In Iron Man, Tony Stark is a quipster whose rapid-fire dialogue is one of the character’s signature attributes, but when he escapes the terrorist camp, and Rhodey finds him in the desert, it’s the normally more reserved Rhodey who makes a joke (“How was the funvee?”) while Stark just collapses into his friend’s arms, all but broken after enduring a living nightmare he never thought he’d survive. Stark’s silence says more than any amount of dialogue could have. Or see how the Thor movies have devolved from Shakespearean family dramas with gods and monsters mixed with some culture-clash comedy to full-blown farces that don’t take a single thing that happens in their run time – or even things that carry over from better movies, like Thor’s search for the Infinity Gems – seriously. Or see how the Hulk has changed; he was once a force of unlimited, rage-fueled power, silent but for his roars and the sound of his smashes. Now, he’s a CGI version of Mark Ruffalo, always talking in that pothead hippie voice, commenting on things the Hulk would typically ignore, and taking away the awe and mystique of a character that was once feared by the otherwise fearless. There is no balance anymore, and I don’t blame Villeneuve for being annoyed by this.

As with most absolute statements like the one Villeneuve made here (and, again, I think he was speaking in hyperbole and didn’t really mean there should be no dialogue in any movie ever), there’s truth to be gleaned from the exaggeration.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our mailing list to get the new updates!