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.