Rob Edelman: Jean-Marc Vallée

Mar 3, 2014

Occasionally, a film that earns across-the-board acclaim is the handiwork of a filmmaker who is not really a known commodity within the mainstream.

One example is Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian whose last year directed PRISONERS, a taut suspenser with a cast headed by Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. PRISONERS, which spotlights what happens in the wake of the mysterious disappearance of two young girls, is the most vivid celluloid portrayal of unrelentingly deep familial anguish since Clint Eastwood's MYSTIC RIVER.

Another such filmmaker is Danish-born Nicolas Winding Refn. Back in 2011, Refn directed DRIVE, a high-octane thriller starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver by day who passes his evenings driving getaway cars for lawbreakers. Its smashing success made Refn a rising star on the international film scene.

Such also is the case with Jean-Marc Vallée, another Canadian. Vallée is the director of the acclaimed DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, which spotlights the early days of the AIDS crisis. Previously, his highest-profile credit was THE YOUNG VICTORIA, released in 2009, which, as the title suggests, is a retelling of the early life of Britain's Queen Victoria. What is noteworthy about THE YOUNG VICTORIA is its stress on characterization. Refreshingly, this is one period film that is not overpowered by pomp.

But the success of DALLAS BUYERS CLUB made me want to explore other Jean-Marc Vallée films. There are two, both available on DVD, that are highly recommend for their daring and originality. The first is CAFÉ DE FLORE, which actually is new to DVD. This 2011 film is a bracing drama which tells corresponding stories of persons who live in different places and in different eras and who actually share souls. One of the two main characters is Antoine, who lives in Montreal in the present-day. Antoine wed his childhood love, but has abandoned her for another. The second is Jacqueline, a devoted single mother living in Paris in 1969 who is struggling to raise her Down syndrome-afflicted son.

CAFÉ DE FLORE is a challenging film, to be sure, with Vallée freely jumping to and from the different locales and time periods as he charts the lives of his characters and their family situations. What is key here is the manner in which Vallée employs sounds and visuals to tell a story that is at once highly personal-- and dreamlike.

Family dynamics also mix with inspired storytelling in C.R.A.Z.Y., a bold, compassionate drama which dates from 2005. C.R.A.Z.Y., which is set in the 1970s, is a coming-of-age tale whose central character, Zac, also is "different." For one thing, he is extremely sensitive, which prevents him from blending in with the world around him. For the most part, he is estranged from his siblings. But Zac also must deal with the fact that he might be gay, and he must contend not only with adolescent angst but with a father who is homophobic.

C.R.A.Z.Y., like CAFÉ DE FLORE, deftly incorporates sounds and images to weave a challenging yet highly watchable film, one that is well-worth viewing and pondering.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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