in memoriam

Out of Time

The Life’s Work of Jean-Marc Vallée

Jean-Marc Vallée immersed viewers in subjective, personal experiences, letting a character’s roaming mind arrange and reveal information based on whatever they were feeling and thinking at any given moment. Photo: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock
Jean-Marc Vallée immersed viewers in subjective, personal experiences, letting a character’s roaming mind arrange and reveal information based on whatever they were feeling and thinking at any given moment. Photo: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock
Jean-Marc Vallée immersed viewers in subjective, personal experiences, letting a character’s roaming mind arrange and reveal information based on whatever they were feeling and thinking at any given moment. Photo: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

Arguably the peak in Jean-Marc Vallée’s evolution as a filmmaker was 2018’s Sharp Objects, a woman-centered drama nestled in a whodunit. Based on the 2006 debut novel by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), it followed a burned-out, alcoholic, self-destructive newspaper reporter (Amy Adams) as she returns to her economically depressed southern Missouri hometown to investigate the killings of two local girls. In the process, she reopens emotional wounds inflicted by her controlling mother (Patricia Clarkson) that contributed to her addiction problems and her penchant for cutting herself. Overseeing a small army of editors, Vallée evolved his cutting to the edge of what linear, story-driven TV would seem to allow, creating a tortured, internal, hothouse crime drama indebted to southern-gothic fiction by such writers as Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor. And as was the case throughout his career, he pushed his music budget to the breaking point, scoring the heroine’s wanderings to Led Zeppelin, a band notorious for asking exorbitant fees to use even fragments of their hits in soundtracks.

As I wrote in a piece about the show’s use of sound and editing to tell a story non-chronologically: “Despite the complexity of what’s being attempted — a nesting-doll memory piece, with Camille at the center, the family around her, and the town enfolding all — Sharp Objects articulates itself clearly. We’re rarely confused about what we’re looking at or why we’re seeing it at that moment, though there may be instances when we don’t have the entire story just yet.”

There was a sense of infinite storytelling possibility in Sharp Objects, the title and subject of which incidentally point us toward the source of Vallée’s strength as a storyteller: the cutting. He increasingly used editing to immerse viewers in subjective, personal experiences, letting a character’s roaming mind arrange and reveal information based on whatever they were feeling and thinking at any given moment.

Jean-Marc Vallée died December 26, 2021, at 58. It felt wrong to lead with that considering the sort of filmmaker Vallée was. If he could have told his own life story from beyond, one suspects it would not have started at the start with his birth in Montreal nor ended at the end with his death from as-yet-unknown causes in a cabin outside Québec City.

The longer Vallée worked, making the Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club and multiple Emmy-nominated TV series, the more circuitous and playful his relationship with time became. Often editing or co-editing projects in addition to directing, producing, and co-writing (sometimes under his own name and other times under pseudonyms), he used cuts not merely to advance the story but to shuffle back and forth through time, to express subjective feelings and associations, and to draw connections between one character or idea and another. That’s what made motion-picture editing such a thrilling storytelling tool over a hundred years ago when filmmakers began seriously testing its formal properties, and it’s what has been mostly lost in recent times, with audiences reacting with displeasure to any story that isn’t constantly reaffirming exactly what just happened, how it relates to the next plot point, and whether the viewer was supposed to approve or disapprove of a character’s actions.

That fascination with time (and memory and subjectivity) was what made Vallée’s best film and television work — including Dallas Buyers Club, Wild, Big Little Lies, and Sharp Objects — so distinctive, along with his interest in telling the stories of women, LGBTQ characters, and people living on the margins of society. In an introduction to a 2019 interview with the filmmaker in the Directors Guild of America Quarterly, Steve Chagolian wrote, “If there’s a signature to Vallée’s work, it’s an implicit trust in the audience’s intelligence and the faith that they’ll make the effort to connect the intricate dots of his projects, whether it’s the parallel storylines of 2011’s Café de Flore or the almost subliminal mosaic of memories, dreams, hallucinations and foreshadowings that bring Sharp Objects into vivid focus.”

Born and raised in Montreal, Vallée studied filmmaking at Collège Ahuntsic and the Université du Québec. His Genie-nominated debut was 1995’s Liste Noire, a thriller about a string of killings that ensues after a sex worker’s client list, which includes many powerful judiciary members, is revealed to the judge hearing her solicitation case. He followed up with two more features that barely made an impression, 1998’s Los Locos and 1999’s Loser Love, supporting himself mainly through commercials and music videos. His popular breakthrough came in 2005 with his fourth feature, C.R.A.Z.Y., which follows the maturation of a young, gay baby-boomer with apparent healing powers who was born on Christmas Day in 1960 (three years before Vallée). With its joyous momentum and profligate use of iconic rock from the ’60s through the ’80s, the movie unwittingly anticipates 2014’s Boyhood, but LBGTQ-themed and with a more raucous, playful style and energy, one year bleeding into the next so that the hero’s life seems to be unfolding in a continuous instant.

Even back then, Vallée’s heels-dug-in certainty about his own vision was apparent: The rights to the film’s 22-song soundtrack had to be entirely renegotiated starting in 2015 because the filmmaker decided it was more important to get the exact songs that he wanted for ten years at a discounted rate than pick different songs that could be used in perpetuity. A dispute over one of the film’s most significant cuts, Pink Floyd’s “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond,” has stopped the film from being legally exhibited in U.S. theaters to this day.

“By linking my music choices to the characters, how they use music becomes organic,” Vallée told the Islands’ Sounder in 2017. “And music in life is like that. Tell me who you listen to, and I will tell you who you are. The power and magic of music gives me ideas on how to direct scenes, how to cut scenes, et cetera. What I love most in life is my special weapon.”

Vallée is survived by two sons, Alex and Emil, born to his ex-wife Chantal Cadieux, a Canadian playwright who lives in Quebec.

Vallée’s 2009 biopic, The Young Victoria, about the early life and reign of Queen Victoria, signaled his entry into the mainstream. Written by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey), produced by Martin Scorsese, and starring Emily Blunt, it was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning for Best Costumes. After a brief detour with the French-language Café de Flore, which he wrote as well as directed, Vallée returned to both collaboration and American mainstream attention with 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club. Based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, an AIDS patient who masterminded an operation to smuggle FDA-unapproved HIV treatments into Texas in the ’80s, the movie was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Editing (by Vallée, working under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy), Best Actor for star Matthew McConaughey as Woodroof, and Best Supporting Actor for Jared Leto as Rayon, a transgender woman composited from interviews with multiple real-life individuals who were involved in the story.

While there was some controversy surrounding the film’s success — accusations that Woodroof was never as aggressively macho and rabidly homophobic as he was portrayed and bisexual rather than straight and that Leto’s character should have been written more sensitively and accurately and portrayed by a transgender performer — Leto and McConaughey won Oscars for their performances, launching new phases in their careers. Vallée benefited as well, heading immediately into 2014’s Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling wilderness-adventure memoir. The film’s star and executive producer was Reese Witherspoon, who had seen an early cut of Dallas Buyers Club and intuited that Vallée might be a collaborator who could sensitively handle the story of a woman coping with issues of grief, recovery, and memory.

Many of Vallée’s movies, including Dallas Buyers Club, used flashbacks judiciously and with flair, but Wild took subjective editing further. The result was a psychologically driven fable that fused a rugged outdoor survival picture about a 1,600-mile hike with those elliptical arthouse dramas that were everywhere in the ’70s and ’80s, often directed by formally innovative international artists like Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth), Fred Schepisi (A Cry in the Dark), and Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock).

“We were very aware to keep the voice-over of [Strayed] in the past and the present very salient and in the moment, with some subtle tweaks in the sound design and the mix to make it feel seamless but different,” he told That Shelf. “Like it was the recollection of a memory coming back to her while she is hiking along this unforgiving trail as she finishes the thoughts from her flashbacks out loud.”

The Wild soundtrack, overseen by Vallée’s longtime music supervisor, Susan Jacobs, was stacked with deep cuts by top-dollar legacy acts, including Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel, and Elvis Presley.

Wild was a commercial as well as critical success, earning many plaudits for its supple use of nonlinear editing and pop music to tell the story of a parent’s influence on a child. Witherspoon was nominated for Best Actress at the following year’s Oscars, and co-star Laura Dern was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for playing the heroine’s mother, Bobbi. The project cemented Witherspoon and Vallée as a formidable director-star team, and Vallée’s increasingly adventurous, emotion-driven editing as a key component in storytelling suited to adult-oriented TV platforms — notably HBO, where Witherspoon was trying to fund projects developed by Pacific Standard, the production company she co-founded in 2012 with Australian producer Bruna Papandrea. In 2016, the latter was subsumed into Hello Sunshine, a larger company created by the same duo. The following year, Hello Sunshine would oversee the multiple-Emmy-winning HBO hit Big Little Lies, a combination murder mystery and ensemble-oriented, women-driven drama, adapted from Liane Moriarty’s novel by writer-producer David E. Kelley (The Practice, Boston Legal) about a group of women (Witherspoon, Dern, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz) in an exclusive seaside town who are suspected of conspiring to kill the Kidman character’s husband (Alexander Skarsgård) and cover up the crime.

In what was then still an unusual practice, the entire series was directed and co-edited as well as co-produced by Vallée, which gave it a unified, often mesmerizing feeling. He channeled the Australian 1970s New Wave filmmakers throughout, using sound to challenge the perceptions of the audience and comment on the action, and jumping around in time to invite comparisons between characters’ domestic predicaments and keep the audience guessing as to what led to the victim dying at a school fundraiser.

It was nearly unprecedented for a TV series to get as much attention for its filmmaking as Big Little Lies did. As noted in “Editing and Empathy in Big Little Lies,” a video essay by Mzak, and a written piece appreciating the video by Sophie Stewart of Film School Rejects, “A conspicuous lack of establishing shots removes any sense of objectivity in the series. Instead of being introduced to new locations or new scenes by an omniscient, objective wide shot, we’re constantly thrown into characters’ points of view; we see what they see, how they see it.”

As I wrote after the season one finale, “there was real beauty in the show’s cutaways to rolling, crashing waves, which complemented the loose, handheld camerawork, the silent-with-music montages, and the many unnerving moments when the dialogue dropped out. The boldest thing about Big Little Lies, though, is the way it centers women’s experiences as wives and mothers, and depicts their internecine fights with each other as a distraction from a larger, ongoing conflict with men — some of whom truly love them.”

“My mom was a Bobbi,” Vallée told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation years earlier while promoting Wild. “Always so positive and annoying me with her ‘rich in love’ and ‘you can do it,’ ‘don’t worry, life is well-made and God is there for you and life will take care of you’ … It’s rare that you see a man in that position. It comes mostly from a woman, from mothers.”

Big Little Lies was nominated for 16 Emmys, winning for Limited Series, Costumes, Music Supervision, Supporting Actress (Dern), Lead Actress (Kidman), and Direction (Vallée). The filmmaker executive-produced the less successful second season of the drama, which tried to continue the story by bringing in Meryl Streep as the murder victim’s mother and hiring Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) to direct all of the episodes. Season two drew fire from the TV press and some fans when it was revealed that Vallée took control of the season from Arnold after production wrapped, insisting on 17 days of reshoots to bring it more in line with his vision.

According to an Indiewire article, Vallée was an “extremely hands-on EP, dictating not only what would be shot, but how it would be shot, an oversight that Arnold never had during the initial shoot.” It was contractually within Vallée’s rights to do this (as is the case on every TV show), and he later explained his actions by talking about how the postproduction of The Young Victoria had been taken away from him against his wishes and he’d vowed to maintain artistic control from that point on, to whatever extent he could. Still the whole thing left a sour aftertaste considering the preponderance of men behind the camera on the series and the fact that Big Little Lies had originated at a production company founded to help tell women’s stories.

Vallée’s mother died of cancer three years before he directed Wild. “Of course I related to the material,” he said in that CBC interview. “I was crying like a baby when I read the book and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to make this film and really pay tribute to my mom and to this kind of female strong character.’”

Asked by DGA Quarterly if it’s “a responsibility of the conscientious filmmaker to enlighten and change perceptions,” Vallée replied: “I hope in some ways that these stories that I embraced and defended and served do that. If they can, that’s a plus, because we’re here for 80 years — 90 if we’re lucky. Particularly us men. But the trip is amazing. Life is precious. I’m 56 and I’m starting to go: Eighty? That means I have 24 years left. But your question makes me think about it. Why are we here? Why am I doing this? Art has this … power, maybe? To change mentalities or maybe change perceptions, like you were saying. ‘Oh, I see this differently because I saw this thing. I was told this story.’”

Both of Vallée’s sons are filmmakers.

Out of Time: The Life’s Work of Jean-Marc Vallée