28 Mar 2014

The films of Jean-Marc Vallée

Jean-Marc Vallée (March 9, 1963) is a remarkable French Canadian filmmaker. What makes him special for me? His powerful combination of images and music. He grew up listening to music: his father was a DJ at a Radio Station and he used to play music at home all the time. When Jean-Marc was 10-years-old he was already listening to Pink Floyd, Bowie and such. Over the past months he's gaining more recognition thanks to directing Dallas Buyers Club (2013), a film that has won three Academy Awards and international praise for the performances of its two stars. I became acquainted with his work a couple of years ago, and after watching Café de Flore (2011) and C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) he became an instant favorite. He haunted me with the hypnotizing images, his use of amazing music — we love the same bands/artists — and how he uses all this to create thrilling and moving scenes. You can really empathize with his characters. All his films feature underdogs or people who even being successful have some internal struggle and have to fight adversity. He’s really great at showing personal relations in a natural and realistic way, even when he uses surrealistic and spiritual elements on the story.

"What makes a good director is to be truthful to yourself and the desire—why you want to make a film and how you embrace filmmaking. What is the sparkle? When I think of directors that I like, I related to that. I like the fact that they are like kids playing with a big toy trying to explore and to have fun. To be at the service of a subject and a story, and submerge themselves into that and try to give an audience a great ride for two hours in the dark, with images, sound, music, silence." — Jean-Marc Vallée

(On the set of Dallas Buyers Club)

When he was 20 he decided to become a director. He studied film at the Université du Québec in Montréal. After that he made a number of acclaimed shorts including Stéréotypes (1991), Les Fleurs magiques (1995), and Les Mots magiques (1998). He also directed several commercials. 1995 was his breakthrough year. His film debut, Liste Noire (1995), was nominated for nine Genies (the Oscars of Canadian cinema). After that he directed two other long feature films, minor works. But in 2005 he put himself back in limelight thanks to his little masterpiece: C.R.A.Z.Y. It received international critical acclaim and it was a financial success. Let’s take a look at the beauty of his latest works, including that great film: 

C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)

 Zach: I want to be like everyone else.
Madame Chose: Thank God, you never will.  

C.R.A.Z.Y. tells the story of Zachary Beaulieu, portrayed by Émile Vallée, the director's son from 6 to 8 years-old, and Marc-André Grondin from 15 to 21. The teenage years are the most important on this boy's life and Grondin does an amazing performance. Zach is the fourth born of five sons from a devout Catholic family in the 60s and 70s in Québec. He has to deal with homophobia while growing up, specially concerning his conservative father, brilliantly portrayed by Michel Côte. The relation that Vallée and the two actors (Grondin and Côte) build up together is so convincingly and moving that you're instantly hooked by the father-son dynamic. Zach is the oddball in the family. His teenage years pass idolizing Bruce Lee and his music icons: Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Joy Division and the Sex Pistols. His room is full of their posters, and it looks like he's inherited his father's love for music, a big fan of Charles Aznavour and Patsy Cline. Music plays a key role in offering us a portrait of the world the characters live in. During adolescence he also declares himself an atheist opposite the rest of the family, his relation with his troubled drug addict brother Ray becomes more tense than ever, and he keeps trying to please his conservative father by hiding his homosexuality. He evens starts dating his long-time neighbour, Michelle, to that purpose. But in the end he's never going to change. 

[One of the best scenes of the film. In 4 minutes, Jean-Marc Vallée shows us the transition of Zach, becoming a teenager, using beautiful imagery and two amazing songs: Pink Floyd's "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" and The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil".]

The great thing about C.R.A.Z.Y. is that is not just the typical coming-of-age drama. It's also a story about family, the boundaries that we can't broke, the love of a father (Côte's work is extraordinary) for his son and how they overcome their differences. It's a film about acceptance and finding who you truly are. It contains imaginitve and spiritual elements that Vallée uses to add something unique to the narrative, with a great dose of sarcastic humor and heartfelt moments. Definitely, one of my favorite films which I highly recommend. Just watch this marvelous scene featuring one of the greatest Bowie songs, "Space Oddity":

It gives me the chills every time I watch it, and I think it inspired the Bowie's "Jean Genie"scene on Ian Curtis' biopic, Control (2007):

C.R.A.Z.Y. had its world premiere at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival and was awarded Best Canadian Feature Film. It also received unanimous praise from film critics and several accolades at the AFI Fest, the Gijón International Film Festival, eleven Genie Awards (Canadian's Oscars), and thirteen Jutra Awards.

The Young Victoria (2009)

Victoria: Do you ever feel like a chess piece yourself? I see them leaning in and moving me around the board. You don't recommend I find a husband to play it for me?   
Albert: I should find one to play it with you, not for you. 

That’s my favorite quote from the film ‘cause it truly defines the Princess Victoria - future Queen of England - and Prince Albert’s relation. Or at least the way we’ve been told their relation was. Victoria managed to find the perfect husband for her, one that respected her.

(The real Victoria and Albert on their mid-thirties, on 1854)

With that being said, those are not words written by Jean-Marc Vallée. Actually, I was surprised when I saw he directed this. An academic period drama starring Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend and with superb actors on the supporting roles: Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Mark Strong and Jim Broadbent.

(Vallée on the set on The Young Victoria)

It was a challenge for me and that's why I wanted to make it. It's so much out of my world. I wasn't attracted by the royal family. But once I had to make a film on them, I became curious to learn about their world and be faithful to what they are.”
 — Jean-Marc Vallée

How did he end up filming this? Well, after the success of C.R.A.Z.Y., Graham King and none other than Martin Scorsese - one of my favorite directors who apparently had an interest on Queen Victoria’s youth - hired Vallée to direct a story written by Julian Fellowes based on the early life and reign of this woman and the first days of her marriage to Prince Albert. The result is a good classy period drama. If you enjoy these kind of films - let’s say Joe Wright/Frears/James Ivory period dramas - you’d probably like it. It’s entertaining and the performances are good. There are some really heavy moments between Blunt, Richardson and Strong as we learn about the relation between the mother and daughter and how, sadly, it was more a political relation than a family thing for her mother. Bettany is the greatest addition to all this, always so persuasive as the politician Lord Melbourne. And it’s difficult to not fall for Rupert Friend’s graceful manners as Prince Albert. 

I enjoy watching these period dramas ‘cause I really appreciate the beautiful period setting and the great costumes. Regarding the costumes, we have here one of the finest works which won the BAFTA and the Oscar for Best Achievement in Costume Design. The credits for this work go to Sandy Powell one of my favorite costume designers and winner of three Academy Awards. Powell has worked in every Scorsese film from the last decade (she won her second Academy Award for The Aviator). She has also worked in some of my favorite films from Neil Jordan — including Interview with the Vampire and The End of the Affair —, Mike Figgis and Todd Haynes. Also she won her first Academy Award for Shakespeare in love, being that year also nominated for Velvet Goldime.

(Powell sketches)

When the movie premiered Emily Blunt was in the limelight. On 2008 she was on the cover of the Vanity Fair’s Hollywood Issue and during the promotion of the film she was featured in a great editorial wearing Dior Haute Couture dresses. I think Blunt’s a great actress. She has a classic beauty and a strong presence that made her perfect for the role. She was rightly nominated to the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama.

(Blunt with the dog that appears as Victoria's puppy, on set)

Café de Flore (2011)

Antoine: Do you believe in soulmates? I do. 
I like the concept that there is somebody who is supposed to be with you forever.

Antoine: There are songs in your life that make you want to crank it up. To live, to make love…  A pleasant little tune, almost banal, but that makes you want to stop, look around, seize the moment. That makes you see life the way it should always be. Beautiful. Complete strangers all smiled at me like they understood my joy at seeing life the way I see it, thanks to music. I was smiling, thinking about what I was feeling, experiencing what music brings to my life.

Have you read that last quote? I couldn’t have explained my love for music in a better way. So what can I say about Café de Flore? This film is emotional, touching, sensual, magic. There is something so unique and engaging about it that makes me like it with a passion. It's full of beautiful images as you can see above. The work of the director of photography, Pierre Cottereau, is stunning. He won the Jutra Award for this. And the cast is great. Some have called Vallée an “actor’s director” and I completely agree. You can watch terrific realistic performances in all his films, and Café de Flore is no exception. 

The story is composed of two interwoven narratives. It has some mysterious twists which makes this a fantastical film at some point, but at the same time it’s about something really natural and simple: love. The love of a mother (Vanessa Paradis) for her son in 1960s Paris, the love of a man (Kevin Parent), for two different women in present-day Montreal, and the love of these women for him. One of them is his ex-wife (Hélène Florent) — with whom he has two daughters —, and the other is his current girlfriend (Evelyne Brochu). And also the love for music. The little kid from Paris loves a specific song, and the man in Quebec is a professional DJ, like Vallée's father. I won't tell you much about the story 'cause it would ruin the surprise elements. 

Just like in C.R.A.Z.Y., music is a vital element. When I first watched it I had the soundtrack on repeat for weeks. One of best soundtracks ever. Here are some of my favorite music - visual moments: 

Creedence Clearwater Revival + Pink Floyd + The Cure, in an 8 minute fabulous sequence filled with flashbacks and dream-like visions. Perfection. 

The catchy Doctor Rockit's tune "Café de Flore" playing on the background at the party and while Antoine talks about his love for music. 
The dance scene. Evelyn Brochu dancing to Elisapie Isaac's "Nawaatara" is the most charming thing in the world. This reminded me a lot of Kate Hudson's flawless stewardess imitation in Almost Famous
And last, but not least... three songs that appear during the film: Sophie Hunger's version of "Le Vent Nous Portera" (click to listen), a lovely French song; the extended version of The Cure's "Pictures of You" (click to listen) my favorite song from them; and Sigur Ros' "Svefn-g-englar", one of the most beautiful and haunting songs ever written.

The film was acclaimed by film critics and it won several accolades and nominations. It received thirteen nominations for the Genie Awards (Canadian Oscars) including the win of Vanessa Paradis as Best Actress. The Vancouver Film Critics Circle also rewarded the Film and Hélène Florent as Best Supporting Actress. Both Paradis and Florent have tough roles and they are amazing.

(Paradis, the little kid that plays baby Laurent, and Vallée on set in Paris)

Vallée talked about his love for music, how his father was constantly playing music when he was a kid as he was a DJ, like the main male character of this film; how his divorce influenced him and the sad death of his mother while he was filming in Paris, on the George Stroumboulopoulos show: 

I wanted to make something different, and to flirt with a supernatural kind of film. And not make a classic realistic love story. I wanted it to be emotional and be special and be different.” — Jean-Marc Vallée

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Ron: Sometimes I just feel like I’m fightin’ for a life I just ain’t got time to live. I want it to mean something. 
Eve: It does.
Dallas Buyers Club is a must watch. I missed the magnetic visual-musical scenes from Vallée’s previous films, something that could have turned this into a great masterpiece, but it's still a powerful drama. With that being said, Matthew McConaughey's performance is terrific, Jared Leto is amazing and endearing, you have T. Rex songs, a beautiful cinematography and a really interesting story, so that's a combination you can't miss. 

 (One of the most beautiful Glam Rock songs
and my favorite from T. Rex plays on the film)

Also, this film has that American vibe like my beloved Fat City from John Huston, that makes me a sucker for films with that style. You can feel that vibe just by listening to the Shuggie Otis’ song featured on the film: 

Regarding McConaughey, the critics and audience have been fairly praising him. I didn’t have a preconceived idea of him as the "rom com" guy 'cause I never watched any of those films, and I think with his latest supporting and leading roles — specially loved MudKiller Joe, and his performance in HBO's series True Detective — he's proved how talented he is. 

(McConaughey with Leto and Jennifer Garner on set)
When I was working with Matthew on ‘Dazed and Confused’ back in ’92, he was doing substantial character work becoming Wooderson, and that was his first film. A few years into his career, someone said he was a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body. If that was indeed true for a while, it sure isn’t anymore.” — Filmmaker Richard Linklater on McConaughey.

In Dallas Buyers Club he is Ron Woodroof, a dying Texas electrician. The film is loosely based on his desperate fight to stay alive after he was diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live in 1986. Yes, 30 days. He first goes through denial, then he remembers that he had unprotected sex with a drug-taking female prostitute and you can feel the panic, the anger, the fear in his face thanks to McConaughey's excellent work. When he says F-ck! out loud in the middle of a public library you can feel the scream of a dying man. He even contemplates suicide at one point in another poignant scene. Even after despising the character, ‘cause Ron Woodroof is protrayed at first as a womanising, homophobic cowboy who lives between lines of cocaine, beers, prostitutes, whisky and tequila, McConaughey’s performance is so convincing and powerful that it makes you care for the guy. 

He was this enigmatic character: wearing a cowboy hat, incredibly raw about women, about drugs, about AIDS. I remember thinking 'this is bigger than life itself.” — Craig Borten, one of the screenwriters of Dallas Buyers Club, on meeting Woodroof for Los Angeles Times.

Woodroof started researching AIDS and discovered antivirals available in other countries, but not in the US, so he decided to start smuggling medicines to help other people in his situation, and of course to help himself too, and he turned that into a business. Like he says at the start of the film: “There ain’t nothin’ out there can kill fuckin’ Ron Woodroof”. The guy was a survivor. He died at 42, so he lived for 6 years more than what he was diagnosed. Sometimes he crossed the Mexican border, dressed as a priest or a doctor, with his car boot packed with tens of thousands of pills. He went to Japan and other parts of the world looking for the medicines. And that’s how he decided to found the Dallas Buyers Club, a place where people with AIDS could join as a member for an amount of money and he would supply them with medicines the US authorities were not providing. But the most important thing, as the people that were part of the club remembered, is that Woodroof gave them hope.

(McConaughey on set)

I admired Ron. I’m not afraid to say it now. He just wanted to live a little longer, and he wanted the same for other people, too. Out of that, he created a business. He was just really frustrated — at the world, at the government that was firewalling his access to the medicines that he thought could keep him alive. He was desperate — perhaps because he knew the clock was ticking. He was a fascinating figure in American history.” — Bill Minutaglio, the first journalist who told Woodroof's story, for The Daily Beast

(The real Ron Woodroof on the Dallas Life Magazine's 
profile that made him famous in America)

Despite the interest of the story, it has taken 20 years to bring it to the screen. The man behind the script of the film, Craig Borten, read the Dallas Life Magazine's article in the summer of 92, and he drove from Los Angeles to Dallas to meet Woodroof. They talked for nearly three days and Borten recorded the conversation with the desire of turning this story into a film. Woodroof died a few months later. Borten completed a script about him but no one wanted to make the film. He was in contact with producer Robbie Brenner during the 90s, they talked with several filmmakers but problems with the studios never ended. Finally, in the spring of 2011, McConaughey told Brenner that he wanted to make it, while they were also in talks with Valleé. 

I went to New York and we had a meeting. He was trying to see if I was the right director. I was trying to see if he was the right actor. And we understood that we wanted to make the same film. It was an instinct thing.” — Vallée on meeting McConaughey, for Hitfix
(Leto, McConaughey and Vallée on set)

It was still a difficult production ‘cause they were $US2 million short of their tight budget when McConaughey had already started his weight-loss regime to get into character. The diet might have been in vain, but the film was saved at the last minute by a pair of Texan businessmen, but they didn't have too much money anyways. That's why it was shot in New Orleans in just 25 days, moving at a breakneck pace, so they could come in at budget. A few examples of the difficulties of the making of the film are Robin Mathews’s low budget for makeup — it was only $250. Her great work has been rewarded with a well-deserved Academy Award — and the lack of lights. Vallée had experience on that 'cause he already filmed with natural light on Café de Flore on the scenes he worked with the Down syndrome kids.

I liked working on digital with no lights, no flash, no blocking the light. These cameras enable you to do that and it creates a dynamic on the set with the actors. They don't feel the heat from the spotlights, they don't have marks and they are not under the impression they're acting. They're in a space, they can use 360 degrees, and they can move. I just have to turn and follow them. It's fast, it's nice, and it looks real. It was just the practical lamps lighting up the place: the candles at the strip club were lighting up the bar in the strip club, same with the restaurant. So it creates this sense of reality, when you look at the film, and it's shot handheld. — Vallée on working without artificial lights for Interview

Before founding the Dallas Buyers Club, in the film, Woodroof meets Rayon at the hospital. Rayon is a charming transsexual brilliantly portrayed by Jared Leto

(Vallée and Leto on set)
We talked via Skype and he was wearing a wig, a pink furry sweater and lipstick. He was hitting on me! I thought he was going to do this for five minutes, two minutes, and he just did it like until the end of the conversation, 25 minutes later. I hung up and said, 'This guy's crazy. He just showed me that he wants the part.' When he arrived on the set, he got off the plane dressed as a woman, with high heels and everything. And at the end of the shoot, he left dressed as a woman…The guy is a rockstar. A natural rockstar.” — Vallée on Leto' casting.  
(Leto on set)
I didn't know about the director but I knew that Matthew was doing the project and I knew he already started losing weight and I did that before as well - lost 28 pounds to play a heroin addict in Requiem for a Dream. The great thing about losing the weight is that it sets the bar, for yourself as well. If you make that commitment you know you're gonna deliver, at least I do. And I thought this guy - McConaughey - is willing to do this so it's gotta be something special and I wanna get in the ring with him, right now, 'cause he's killing it.” — Jared Leto on working on Dallas Buyers Club.

Leto's character is based on different people that Woodroof knew, and is a wonderful character and one of the things I loved the most about this film. He’s kind-hearted, funny, he loves Marc Bolan (T. Rex singer) and he has to face his disease and a severe drug problem. McConaughey and Leto make a bizarre lovely duo. Ron starts taking care of Rayon, or better said, they both start taking care of each other, and their relation is the highlight of the film for me.


The film also stars, in a little role, the lovely Jennifer Garner, who plays a doctor concerned with the AIDS’ situtation. There are also a few appearances by great actors like Griffin Dune, Steve Zahn and Denis O’Hare.  As I told you before, there is no doubt why Vallée is called a great “actor’s director”. Dallas Buyers Club won the Academy Award for Best Actor (McConaughey) and Best Supporting Actor (Leto), making it the first film since Mystic River (Sean Penn and Tim Robbins were the winners) to win both awards. McConaughey and Leto have won like every award from last season, from several Critics' Awards to the Golden Globes, the Independent Spirit Awards or the SAG Awards, just to name a few.

(McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Lupita Nyong'o 
and Leto at the 86th Academy Awards)

Jean-Marc Vallée latest project, that he ended shooting last year, it's another true-life story: Wild. It stars Reese Witherspoon as the lone hiker Cheryl Strayed, and it's based on her novel of the same name, which recounts her personal journey throughout the wilds of Oregon. I guess it would premier at the end of the year or so. Let's hope is as good as his previous projects. 

(Vallée during a Q&A promoting Dallas Buyers Club)

 “When I see great film, I have this feeling of "Oh, wow! Wasn't that great? Wasn't that good? I want to do something. I want to scream and go out there and participate and embrace life. Press on the pedal and accelerate." For me, a guy like Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Soderbergh, they have such a beautiful understanding of the medium of what filmmaking is — how they explore it and use it to tell stories and move us and make us dream. I guess the dream part is important. Maybe that's what makes a good director. The dream factor.” — Jean-Marc Vallée for Interview.

— Mara

Photos: All screencaps by me, except the ones from The Young Victoria from grande_caps and Dallas Buyers Club's gifs from Team Rayon