top of page

Filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée swung his sledgehammer softly

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Quebec’s Jean-Marc Vallée, a giant of Canadian and international film and TV who died Sunday at the untimely age of 58, could make a blow from a sledgehammer feel like a touch from a magic wand.

Brilliant with actors and also at reshaping the look and feel of cinema, the personable Montreal writer/director/editor/producer demonstrated his transformative magic in “Demolition,” his most recent movie.

A cockeyed romance that opened the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, it stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an investment banker who turns into a hammer-swinging home wrecker, achieving physical and emotional catharsis, as his way of coping with the car-crash death of his wife. In “Dallas Buyers Club” two years earlier, Vallée guided Matthew McConaughey’s homophobic rodeo rider character into becoming an unlikely AIDS crisis hero and a Best Actor winner for McConaughey at the Academy Awards. The film also won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto) and Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

“You want to make (the audience) cry, make them laugh, both at the same time sometimes,” Vallée told me from the Oregon set of “Wild,” his 2014 film starring Reese Witherspoon as a long-distance hiker seeking truth. “So that’s what I look for when I read a script. If I’m touched, if I have teary eyes or I laugh, if I see that I can recognize and relate to what (the characters) are going through.”

“Dallas Buyers Club” was Vallée’s Hollywood breakthrough, one that he might have made earlier on the strength of acclaim he received for such films as “C.R.A.Z.Y.,” a 2005 coming-of-age and coming-out story set in the glam-rock 1970s, which scored 11 trophies at Canada’s Genie Awards (now called the Canadian Screen Awards). The Genie wins by “C.R.A.Z.Y.” included Best Motion Picture for artistry and the Golden Reel Award for commercial success, an exceedingly rare combo of critical and commercial success for a Canadian movie. It made cash registers ring to the tune of $6.3 million — $5.8 million in Quebec, $500,000 in the rest of the country — a record take for a Canadian film playing in Canadian theatres at a time when a $5 million haul was considered a major achievement. But while he was in demand in Hollywood, especially from actors eager to work with him, Vallée was in no hurry to step up to blockbuster films like his Quebec film contemporary Denis Villeneuve, whose sci-fi hit “Dune” is still in theatres. Vallée turned down multiple Hollywood offers before signing on for “Dallas Buyers Club.”

“I’m aiming for smaller things that I’m more comfortable with, between the $5 million and $15 million film, the character-driven film, and I try to touch people,” he told me.

“I’ve always had (Hollywood) offers,” he said. “I accepted the one for ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ because I wanted to do it.” Vallée favoured character over incident and the poetic over the literal.

He knew exactly what he wanted and he was prepared to wait years to get it. It took him 10 years to make “C.R.A.Z.Y.,” in part because he wanted to use tunes by David Bowie, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones in it, huge “gets” for a small Canadian film. Song licensing fees cost him $600,000, roughly a tenth of the film’s entire production budget.

The sound of his films was as important to Vallée as the images.

Pink Floyd is also heard in “Café de Flore,” his 2011 romantic puzzle about the mystery of love, starring Kevin Parent, Hélène Florent and Vanessa Paradis. So are numbers from Floyd’s spiritual heir, Iceland’s Sigur Ros. Vallée foregrounds the music, making it part of the time-shifting narrative.

True to his word about keeping things manageable, Vallée spent his most recent years concentrating on the small screen, with the hit TV series “Big Little Lies” and “Sharp Objects,” which he executive produced and also directed many of the episodes.

Based on Liane Moriarty’s bestselling 2014 mystery novel of the same name, HBO’s “Big Little Lies” stars Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz. A story of mothers with secrets in a California beach town, the show tackles themes of domestic and sexual abuse and bullying. It won eight Emmys out of a total 21 nominations during its run, including Best Director for Vallée.

“Sharp Objects,” also on HBO and based on Gillian Flynn’s 2006 thriller novel, stars Amy Adams as a reporter who returns to her suffocatingly small Missouri hometown to investigate the murders of two young girls.

Vallée and his production partner Nathan Ross had recently signed HBO deals to executive produce the memoir-based series “Gorilla and the Bird,” and the novel-derived “The Players Table.”

Vallée’s many upcoming projects also included a feature film about John Lennon and Yoko Ono, produced by Ono, which he was in the midst of co-writing and planned to direct. It would have been a movie to anticipate, but Vallée’s sudden passing means he won’t be behind the lens for it. His departure makes a seismic quake and leaves a sense of void in Quebec, Canadian and world cinema comparable to that of Jean-Claude Lauzon, a fellow Quebec filmmaker whose films “Léolo” and “Un zoo la nuit” pointed to a brilliant career — one that was ended by an airplane crash in 1997, at the age of 43.

Vallée was proud to be part of Quebec’s vibrant film scene. He’s often referred to as being part of a Quebec New Wave of bold and visionary directors that also includes Denis Villeneuve, Philippe Falardeau, Denis Côté and Xavier Dolan.

Yet true to his iconoclastic nature, Vallée didn’t want to be pinned down by definitions.

“Yes, there’s something going on. I’m proud to be part of it,” he said. “(But) I don’t say: ‘I’m a Canadian filmmaker,’ or ‘I’m in Quebec.’ I make films. Sometimes they’re made in Quebec in French. I’ve never made a film just in Canada outside of Quebec in English. Will it happen? Maybe.”

He never got to make that English-language Canadian film. Nevertheless, he leaves behind so much to savour. 🌓

(This column originally ran in the Toronto Star.)



bottom of page