French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée did everything you’re supposed to do to forge a successful career in filmmaking. He learned his craft early by making modest genre pictures, short films and TV movies. He broke through big-time with 2005’s C.R.A.Z.Y., a coming-of-age story that was a smash hit in Canada, wowed film festival audiences around the world and won 10 Genie Awards (that country’s equivalent to the Oscars), including Best Picture.
Hollywood took notice and gave him the directorial reins to 2009’s The Young Victoria, a drama about the queen’s romance with Prince Albert boasting a $35 million budget, a starry cast and a script by a previous Oscar winner, Julian Fellowes. The movie was nominated for three Oscars (and won for Costume Design). Vallée’s star seemed to be on the rise.
And yet on the eve of the U.S. release of his new movie Café de Flore, which opens Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, Vallée remains practically unknown to American audiences.
The wildly inventive C.R.A.Z.Y., filled with indelible moments such as a scene in which a church choir breaks out into Sympathy for the Devil, would have been a surefire hit on the art-house circuit (imagine a boisterous teen comedy-drama directed by Martin Scorsese). But the film was never released theatrically in the United States because it was packed with classic songs (David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane) and the music rights were too expensive for American distributors to gamble on a French-language movie.
And although his name remains in the credits of The Young Victoria, Vallée says he lost creative control of the movie during the editing process and doesn’t feel much kinship with the finished film.
“It felt like a movie I had seen before, which was not my intention when I set out to make it,” he says of his foray into Hollywood. “I knew I was making a classical period piece, but I thought I could give it an edge and do something different. It looked so common. I was really disappointed by that whole experience.”
The fiasco turned out to be a blessing. Motivated by his inability to tell the love story of Queen Victoria his way, he began writing an original screenplay that was much more C.R.A.Z.Y. than Masterpiece Theater.
“I wanted to come back to a musical experience and write a love story that incorporated some kind of special magical element,” he says. “I decided early on I would also edit the movie myself, so I was cutting it in my head as I wrote it and listening to a lot of music to find the right tracks to define the characters.”
The resulting film tells not one but two love stories, set in different time periods and joined by the eponymous song. In 1969 Paris, a single mother (Vanessa Paradis) raising a 7-year-old boy (Marin Gerrier) with Down syndrome plays the jazzy tune over and over for him. In present-day Montreal, a world-famous DJ named Antoine (Kevin Parent) spins a groovy, house-flavored cover of the same song at nightclubs.
Unlike C.R.A.Z.Y., in which Vallée used specific songs to express what the protagonist was thinking, Café de Flore uses music to convey what the characters are feeling. Vallée, who was a DJ at parties as a teenager, says he wanted the movie to connect with audiences the way they do with music: on a subliminal gut level, not an intellectual one.
“When the movie opened in Canada [in 2011], some critics really attacked it,” Vallée says. “They hated it. They wanted the story to be told differently, in a more conventional way. This is a film about pure love, and some people aren’t instinctively tuned into that feeling. They are more cerebral. This film hits you in the gut and the heart; it doesn’t go up to the brain. It’s like someone asking you to explain what rock and roll means to them. It’s something you can’t put it into words.”
Similar to Cloud Atlas, another film that tells several simultaneous stories set in different eras, Café de Flore constantly jumps back and forth in time, sometimes with shots that last only a few seconds. But the dazzling technique never obscures Vallée’s stories about the importance of family, the difficulties of parenting and the unpredictable nature of love. Like C.R.A.Z.Y., Café de Flore is uncommonly attuned to the up-and-down dynamics of extended families — the deep pleasures and exasperating demands of being blessed with a large group of relatives, and what it takes to maintain strong familial connections while trying to lead your own life.
“I’m a family man,” say Vallée, 49. “I have children, I have brothers and sisters, and both of my parents came from big families. I know what it’s like when everyone gets together for a nice celebration like Christmas or Easter or a birthday, and everyone is having a great time, and then someone says or does something and [messes] it up for everyone else. Divorce is particularly difficult in these kinds of situations. Antoine is divorced and preparing to remarry, and his father is very upset about it, and his oldest daughter is really pissed.”
Café de Flore withholds the connection between its two seemingly unrelated storylines until the final half-hour, when the movie makes its boldest move. Vallée pulled a similar twist in C.R.A.Z.Y., when his confused teenaged hero, who was struggling with his homosexuality, took a trip to Jerusalem and had a spiritual awakening.
The director knows the sudden revelation may throw off some viewers, but he stresses that the discovery in the film comes from the characters, not from him.
“I’m always looking for a powerful experience in movies,” he says. “The films I enjoy the most are the ones that make me feel connected to something that is bigger than me. I’m not a religious guy: It’s not about that. I wanted something that was ethereal or mystical or spiritual — I’m not sure exactly what to call it — because this story to me is not just about reality. It’s also about magic, because I do believe there is magic in life.”
Vallée’s willingness to take daring narrative and stylistic risks in the context of highly accessible movies is one of the things that distinguishes him from other Canada-based filmmakers. With a few exceptions (David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan), they tend to play primarily to their home audience, not the world.
“Jean Marc is a flamboyant filmmaker, because that’s how he is in real life,” says Philippe Falardeau, who directed the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar, Canada’s entry into this year’s Academy Awards. “He manages to balance content and form using flashy camerawork and style. He’s also one of the few Canadian filmmakers in the last decade who has been able to make movies that are both personal and commercial. With C.R.A.Z.Y., he proved we can use popular music and culture the same way American and British movies do. He’s very much a pioneer in that sense. Café de Flore is a much more personal film than C.R.A.Z.Y., but it’s just as thrilling to watch.”
And although his last fling with Hollywood ended badly, Vallée is giving it another shot. He is currently in New Orleans preparing to film The Dallas Buyer’s Club, a fact-based story starring Matthew McConaughey as an electrician who was diagnosed with AIDS and given six months to live, but managed to extend his life by importing HIV drugs from other countries not approved by the FDA.
“I’m not well known by American audiences, but a lot of actors know me through my work, and Matthew is really excited to play this character,” Vallée says. “We’re shooting very quickly on a low budget, and even though it’s based on actual events, there’s a little bit of magic in this one, too. I want to put on a good show with every movie I make. David Lynch and Hal Ashby and Stanley Kubrick did it in their time, and Christopher Nolan and David Fincher are doing it today. I love exploring this beautiful poetry of creating images and cutting them together using music and sound. That’s what I did with Café de Flore. Some people may think it was too much. I’m just trying to keep pushing the language of cinema forward.”