In honor of acclaimed French filmmaker Claire Denis’s first foray into science fiction with “High Life” – still playing in select theaters across the country – we’re sharing some of our favorite examples of auteur genre-flipping. Rather than rank them, we want to honor my selected five by discussing the radical shifts in format these directors took without compromising their essence. In many cases, these deviations opened new doors that expanded their audience reach and pushed their storytelling limits. Below you’ll find five incredible filmmakers who leaped at the opportunity to convey their artistry in a new shade.
From “Jaws” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”
Although everyone proudly credits 1975’s “Jaws” as Steven Spielberg’s career breakthrough, most wouldn’t categorize the king of blockbusters as a horror filmmaker. “Jaws” is a spine-tingling geyser of violence that ensnares our deepest fears because it shatters the safety bubble of the family vacation. Watching children and teenagers mauled to death in shallow proximity of loved ones gave audiences a bottomless fear of the oceanic unknown.
Spielberg’s mastery of the genre could have made him a perfect director to adapt some of Steven King’s most terrifying novels, but instead, he cultivated emerging technology to create “event” experiences in Kubrick grandiosity. 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” cemented Spielberg as a director who reached for the stars yet whose heart remained humanly Earthbound. Spielberg would continue to make other sentimental classics in the science fiction genre, making him and George Lucas artistic siblings who utilize the genre to reiterate humanity’s ethical core.
From “Interstellar” to “Dunkirk”
Traveling to the far reaches of space to save mankind, no space drama has ever been so ambitious in scope and narrative as “Interstellar.” Even if confusing, no single frame was insignificant or short of mesmerizing. Although shockingly unrewarded for his visionary reach, Nolan pivoted to World War II with an avant-garde approach. Rather than expand the scale of history’s greatest global conflict, Nolan focused on three primary modes of enemy engagement: land, air, and sea. Using the rescue at Dunkirk as its staging ground, viewers experienced the heat of battle as it truly is: impersonal, frenetic, unyielding, intermittently evolving, deafening, and without a nanosecond to breathe. While “Interstellar” was about taking in the awe, “Dunkirk” carried a power generated by its action specificity through the lenses of soldier, civilian, and pilot.
From “Fish Tank” to “Wuthering Heights”
This radical genre shift is a prime example of an auteur maintaining their thematic integrity despite a milieu that’s worlds apart. In “Fish Tank,” Andrea Arnold depicts youth in revolt, attempting to escape the gutter of poverty. The same rebellious energy is found in “Wuthering Heights” with Heathcliff, an unstable foreigner who finds himself at the psychologically vexing mercy of the Victorian era. The jump from contemporary indie drama to a Gothic period piece with tumultuous interpersonal conflict demonstrates range and artistic ambition. Arnold correlates mental health struggles with emotional abuse wrought during a child’s upbringing, something both Heathcliff and “Fish Tank’s” protagonist Mia experience in severe degree.
From “La La Land” to “First Man”
From the glitz and glam of Tinseltown to the stark isolation of outer space, Damien Chazelle proved master of any genre under his command with “La La Land” and subsequently “First Man.” The former is now considered one of the best musicals of modern film for its spellbinding sequences set against the backdrop of a contemporary Hollywood love story challenged by the allure of fame. Meanwhile, “First Man” is destined to stand the test of time for its profound technical accomplishments, including a lunar landing segment that sits alongside some of the most thrilling scenes ever captured on celluloid.
Yet, the two masterpieces parallel each other with their sobering meditation on tragedy regardless of accomplishment. Love and happiness are often mutually exclusive because of unforeseen journeys life takes us on. This universal truth is poetically rendered during pivotal moments of reflection in both films: one a knowing glance at a nightclub and the other an internal confrontation of a wounded soul millions of miles away from Earth.
From “Selma” to “A Wrinkle in Time”
Given the critical lambasting received by this adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved novel, Ava DuVernay’s inclusion could be considered controversial. However, as the first black woman to helm a $100 million dollar movie, DuVernay confidently embraces the colorful grandiosity of childhood imagination. She never shies away from the seemingly bizarre appearances of astral beings who invite Storm Reid’s Meg Murry and her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) on a galactic quest. The siblings have little reason to trust these entities other than the promise of finding their missing father. The film proudly amplifies the beaming optimism of youth, which isn’t jaded by experience at such an early age. Even Meg – whose insecurities and “flaws” eventually become instrumental tools of empowerment – casts aside her cynicism and doubt for love’s sake.
Just like in her Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic “Selma,” DuVernay is less concerned with elevating an image than she is about honoring the person. Doing so means presenting her protagonists with total transparency, even if it means undesirable traits leak to the surface. As Oprah Winfrey’s Mrs. Which tells Meg in the movie’s best scene, a sequence of events from the time the universe was born eventually leads to the singular creation of an individual: you. Therefore, our miraculous origin story already establishes how special we are, and all we’re missing is the willpower to unlock our potential. For Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s about banding collectively to certify the freedoms promised to all Americans. For Meg, it’s about figuratively shining in her black skin while saving the world and her family from approaching darkness in the form of self-doubt.