Monday, March 17, 2014

Jean-Marc Vallée’s Early Films

- “People don’t remember that fifteen-twenty years ago you made Liste noire, and then you went to the states, and made Los Locos, and Loser Love,Daniel Pennac.
- “Yeah, let’s talk more about those,” Jean-Marc Vallée.

Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) was the artistic breakthrough of his career, for himself and his public, and it seems to have overshadowed his first three feature films: Liste noire (1995), Los Locos: Posse Rides Again (1997), and Loser Love (1999). Since then these hard-to-find titles have only gotten even more lost in obscurity. But if Vallée is an auteur (as I contend) what do these earlier films have to say about the director and his posterior films? What are they even about? Are they even filmed interestingly?

As much as I would love to claim their brilliance, to further validate Vallée’s importance, especially against his unfair critical neglect, these films are rougher works, that are not up to par with his more recent films. They are more in line with failed ambitious early films by other major directors like Kubrick’s Fear and Desire (1953), Spielberg’s Amblin’ (1968), Solondz’ Fear, Anxiety & Depression (1989) and Shyamalan’s Praying with Anger (1992). But they still offer microcosms of themes and stylistics that Vallée would later refine which for that reason makes them worthy of analysis for a better understanding of his career.

Vallée graduated in film from the Université of Québec in Montréal.  Liste noire is his first full-length feature. Unlike the American term ‘blacklist’, which has its connotations of McCarthyism, in French liste noire is a judicial document listing individuals that are judged to be undesirable. The film is set in present-day Montreal and it opens with a judge having sex with a notorious call girl and then the police busting them. In court, against her lawyer’s council, she hands the judge Jacques Savard (Michel Côté) a list of all her clients, which includes some of his peers and influential politicians. The family-man Jacques is up for a promotion and there is a lot at stake in this case. His choice to reveal the circumstantial list is made even more complicated when threats start arriving and his peers start getting killed. But it’s never really clear who is responsible for these crimes and as it turns out Jacques actually might have a dark side.

The re-working of a classic genre, the murder intrigue, in a low-budget financial model makes Liste noire similar to the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple (1984). Its theme of alienation is reminiscent of Atom Egoyan's early films. The film was a big commercial success and was nominated for several Genies, as later on C.R.A.Z.Y. would be. The success of Liste noire would allow Vallée to go to Hollywood for the first time, where he would make his next two films. Liste noire would be remade in English by Sylvain Guy as The List (2000) with Ryan O’Neil and Ben Gazzara. As well Vallée’s collaboration with Michel Côté would lead to their future collaboration on C.R.A.Z.Y., which Côté would convince Vallée to film in Montreal and which he would help get financed.

The original Posse (1993) by and starring Mario Van Peebles tells the story of an African-American posse in the post-Civil War American West who are being unfairly chased by their racist ex-Colonel and his troops. It ends with a showdown in a town between its new black settlers and the racist capitalist that wants to tear it down to profit from the building of a new train route. The follow-up to Posse, Los Locos, which is not as good, focuses on Chance (Van Peebles) who gets recruited to help a Sister move a closing convent’s developmentally-challenged residents. On the website René’s Page there is an impressive lengthy review of Los Locos by Marguerite Krause who highlights the humanity of its main characters and its “gritty realism” while having caveats about its weak structure and lack of character back-story. A subsequent influence Los Locos would have on Vallée is that the characters with Down syndrome in Café de flore was sparked by an interest he had working with an actor with the condition from it.

One wonders what could have attracted Vallée to the project of Los Locos after Liste noire? There are two possible answers: it is his attempt to infiltrate the film industry, as well as as an exercise to test his skills at directing, working with actors and editing. This transition from Québécois cinema to Hollywood, which recalls the career of Ted Kotcheff, would become a regular working practice for Vallée. For example, he would go make The Young Victoria (2009) for Martin Scorsese in England after C.R.A.Z.Y, and then Dallas Buyers Club (2013) with Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto after making the more personal Café de flore (2011).

Loser Love is probably the most interesting film out of Vallée’s early three (and the only one accessible on DVD) for the professionalism of its direction, high production values and the actor’s performances (Laurel Holloman, Andy Davoli). It’s about a woman, who after getting fed up of her emotionally abusive boyfriend, plans, with her best friend, to kill him and to make it look like it was her father that did it. Loser Love along with Liste noire, and maybe less so in Los Locos, shows Vallée’s interest in personal desires manifested through love and sex, the changing norms of interpersonal relations and their social acceptance, and an interest in judiciary procedures (e.g. the trial in Liste, the psychiatrist appointments in Loser) and their limiting use value. But the problem with all of these films is that they’re not personal and Vallée seems to be working for hire.

It’s not until C.R.A.Z.Y., working with an autobiographically shared screenplay by Vallée and François Boulay, that he would implement his signature mark, that of a personal fresco cinematographically rendered, which would then guide his following films. At first C.R.A.Z.Y. was going to be set in Boston, partly influenced by Gus van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997), but through convincing and financing, Vallée was able to set it in Montreal to tell his story, without any compromises. It is this personal impulse, in contrast to being told what to do, that differentiates Vallée’s early films from his later ones. He’s now keeping a fast working pace as he is in post-production on Wild and then is planning another American, French and Québécois film. You just know that they’re going to be good!

No comments: