Growing up Catholic in Quebec shaped Denis Villeneuve's vision of Dune

“The pressure of religion, the idea that you can use God as a tool to manipulate people, is something I think that’s very relevant today in certain parts of the world, including ours.”

Article content

It’s Thursday afternoon, the day after the Montreal première of Dune: Part Two, and a very-tired under-the-weather Denis Villeneuve is talking about religion.

The fatigue is catching up with the Montreal filmmaker a month into a globe-trotting promotional tour for his second Dune movie that has included red-carpet pit stops in Mexico City, Paris, London, Abu Dhabi, Seoul, New York City and now his adopted hometown. (He’s originally from the village of Gentilly, near Trois-Rivières.) Later this week, he heads to China, the final stop on the tour.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

We’re talking religion and politics because the dangers of mixing the two is one of the central themes of the new Dune film. Paul Atreides, portrayed by Timothée Chalamet, is leading the battle pitting the Fremen against the Harkonnen dictatorship and many of the Fremen believe that Atreides is the messiah they’ve been waiting for. Others, most notably Atreides’s love interest Chani (Zendaya), are completely cynical about this messiah story.

Villeneuve talks of how his roots in Quebec informed the creation of Dune in the sense that he grew up as an observant Catholic and then like so many francophone Quebecers moved away from the Church following the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. It’s a point of view that finds echo in the current debate about whether Quebec should become a more lay society, a divisive battle that was back in the news this week with the Quebec Court of Appeal upholding the province’s controversial Bill 21 that forbids some civil servants from wearing religious symbols on the job.

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

Advertisement 3

Article content

Being pre-occupied about the mix of religion and politics “says things about where I’m coming from, as a French-Canadian Catholic living in Quebec under the pressure of the Church,” Villeneuve said.

But that pressure was ending when you were growing up, wasn’t it, I ask, given that Villeneuve was born in 1967.

“Absolutely, I’m a product of the Quiet Revolution,” Villeneuve said. “But there were some conservative elements in my education. I was raised as a Catholic. But the pressure of religion, the idea that you can use God as a tool to manipulate people, is something I think that’s very relevant today in certain parts of the world, including ours. Look at how religion is embedded in politics all over the world, in Russia, in the United States. Radical religious positions that leaders use for their own ends.”

But what is interesting, I note, is that so many francophone Quebecers turned away from religion after that Catholic domination. So, for example, the rate of common-law marriages is so high here because people don’t want to get married in a church.

But Villeneuve stresses that he’s not against religion.

Advertisement 4

Article content

“There’s a lot of beautiful things about religion,” Villeneuve said. “When we did the score for Dune, I was talking to (composer) Hans (Zimmer) about the religious chants I learned as a kid, that were absolutely related to your soul. There is something about sacred music that is very powerful and the notion of the sacred is very important. But the use of religion as a weapon or a political force is something that’s dangerous, and I think that is very contemporary. We (in Quebec) are a lay society, which means you separate the Church and the state, which is very healthy.”

Director Denis Villeneuve and producer Tanya Lapointe, Villeneuve's wife, arrive on the red carpet for the Montreal première of the film Dune: Part Two, on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024.
Director Denis Villeneuve and producer Tanya Lapointe, Villeneuve’s wife, arrive on the red carpet for the Montreal première of the film Dune: Part Two, on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

It was these big themes about society in the 1965 Frank Herbert novel Dune that fascinated Villeneuve back when he was a young man and that continue to haunt him all these years later, to the point where he has devoted a chunk of his life to making two Dune films and is contemplating making a third one.

“It’s truly an obsession,” Villeneuve said. “There’s something in that book that speaks deeply to my roots, the idea of a young man that finds a home and peace in another culture. And the idea of the exploration of the danger of blending politics and religion together. They’re all topics I was fascinated with as a kid and that’s why I still love the book. It’s mysterious, but every time I open the book, I have the same pure joy.”

Advertisement 5

Article content

I say to him that it’s also a movie about war, particularly timely right now with bloody conflicts all over the planet.

“It is a war film,” Villeneuve said. “Since I wrote the screenplay three years ago, four years ago, the news has changed. We’re in difficult times right now. But it is about a conflict. What Frank Herbert wrote was inspired by the main currents of the 20th century and he made projections into the future. And sadly it’s more relevant that it was in the ’60s.”

Villeneuve said there may well be a third Dune film, but added “I’d love to step away from Arrakis,” referring to the fictional desert planet in the Dune films.

“I think it would be healthy for me to do something different. But my honest answer is I will direct the first screenplay that will be ready. But right now all my projects are works in progress, which is great news because I need a break.”

[email protected]

Recommended from Editorial

Advertisement 6

Article content

Article content