“I’ve been doing one after the other for the last five years, since Dallas Buyers Club and I’m exhausted. After Sharp Objects and another American film (perhaps with Witherspoon) to follow, I’m taking a break where Hollywood won’t see me. No one will see me except for my close ones in Montreal.” – Jean-Marc Vallée (Montreal Gazette)
There’s a reservation and anger to Jean-Marc Vallée. Even though he’s at the peak of his career, now with the seven one-hour episodes of Big Little Lies currently airing on HBO which is perhaps his most ambitious, heartfelt and stylistic work so far; there’s still a resentment to his private observations (‘No one will see me…’). You would think he would be in a better mood: Variety gave Big Little Lies a cover and it has been getting rave reviews from the likes of IndieWire, The Week and Le Blog du Cinéma. In the Variety feature there’s even an anecdote from the Big Little Lies wrap party where Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley serenaded him to Fleetwood Mac's Dreams (a reference to episode 3). You would have to wonder what he has to be upset about?
Similar to Steven Soderbergh, and unlike Denis Villeneuve, Vallée seems to have an ambivalent relationship to the film industry. The economics, logistics and bureaucracy are all hindrances towards his need to create and make movies. And after the commercial failure of his more personal project Demolition – audiences are no longer interested in character studies, so he says, even such an action-oriented and luminous one such as this – there’s a sense that what he wants to create and what others want from him are no longer the same. The Janis Joplin project fell through and now after another television series (Sharp Objects) his friend Witherspoon wants him for another feature. But these aren’t the projects of his choosing. If Vallée wants to remain a personal filmmaker (with the personal films being the ones where he appears in a cameo) then he needs to free himself from the industry so that he can make what he wants: whether this is the John Franklin film, an extension of his earlier Les Fleurs and Mots magiques films or any other project that he desires.
It’s this Vallée, the private filmmaker, that generally gets overlooked in broad summaries of him. Take the Vice Guide to Film episode on Vallée for example. With interviews with his actors, actresses and producer Matthew McConaughey, Marc-André Grondin, Evelyne Brochu, Vanessa Paradis and Bruna Papandrea (whose now no longer at Pacific Standard) along with rare photographs, clips and voice over analysis, the episode does a good job at identifying how Vallée’s like on set and reoccurring themes and motifs. But Vallée doesn’t appear in it, which illustrates both his thoughts on these sorts of vanity projects and his busy schedule. Though they mention his earlier Los Locos and Loser Love it’s unclear if the works were even seen or if their merits picked up upon. About the sequel to Posse, Los Locos: Posse Rides Again Vallée talks about first working with children with Down syndrome whose positive spirits would charm him and his production crew so much that he would cast children with it in his films from Café de flore onward. The New York setting of Loser Love would anticipate Demolition and its domestic abuse subject the fights between Celeste and her husband in Big Little Lies. Probably the biggest inaccuracy of the episode is its blind acceptance of The Young Victoria into his cannon, which he has regularly disowned due to studio interference both on set and in the final cut. And there’s nothing either on the two television shows that he’s worked on Strangers and The Secret Adventures of Junes Verne, which also anticipates his move now back to the small screen.
This brings us to Big Little Lies. It needs to be said, in these cynical times, Big Little Lies is more urgent then ever with its message of kindness, nostalgia and its association to music, and its emphasis on sentiment which all contribute in making it a piercing spark of light and hope that can shine its surrounding darkness. Though it acknowledges divided households and communities, it’s message is one of strength, endurance and reconciliation in tough times. The David E. Kelley adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s book is a pretty loyal adaptation and though there are some differences it makes it better suited to express the feelings of the scenes and the social world of the characters. In the Variety feature Witherspoon speaks about giving Renata (Dern) more depth and for spicing up Madeline through how she hooks up with the theater director. Some other changes includes nobody saying the catchphrases ‘Oh, calamity!’ which was famous from the book. It hints that Madeline had a cancer scare. Anger and the gesture towards violence is more presently bubbling underneath the social surface. For example Ed, who is no longer a journalist but a website designer, nearly fights with Nathan. And the big shift is that it’s no longer set in rural Australia but in Monterey, California.
There are also scenes that anticipates Vallée’s adaptation of Dominique Fortier’s Du bon usage des étoiles. Madeline looks out to the ocean and mentions its beauty and mystery. There are scenes about putting on a play that are similar to ones in the Fortier book. Big Little Lies gets at what’s it like to feel pain and to fight for oneself while also allowing for some more frivolous scenes. The melancholic beauty and nostalgic musicality comes through the song selection. Michael Kiwanuka’s Cold Little Heart sets the tone and each character, most notably Madeline’s Chloe, play songs that provide a musical and emotional counterpart to what they’re going through. Vallée’s elliptical style, mixing flashbacks and fantasy into reality, is subtle as he adapts to the more straight-forward storytelling approach of television. But it’s all there from book and Kelley’s adaptation does a better job at balancing moods and giving life to the characters than Nick Hornby did awkwardly with Wild. I won’t say more about the murder mystery that’s at the center, the story is set around flash-forwards to an apparent death at one of the school’s fundraiser, but as the opening credits show, all of the main women characters are there and they are all finally dancing in unison.
If one worried that a new generation of Québécois directors, of such great films as Les démons, Nelly, Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié n'ont fait que se creuser un tombeau and Mes nuits feront echo, would supersede Vallée as he succumbs to the industrial Hollywood machine then you should be relieved. He’s lost none of his charm and the beauty of the project shines brighter than a shooting star. But Big Little Lies is still a transition work for Vallée as this move to television has left him frustrated and his next project Sharp Objects, or at least the book, is extremely cynical. The damaged journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), discovering the corruption and vileness of her hometown, becomes nearly catatonic in front of the misery of the world. The youthful cynicism recalls CW’s Riverdale and the young women protagonist to Casey and the cutting in Shyamalan’s Split. It would be a shame if Sharp Objects becomes one of Vallée's more popular projects because his previous work is just filled with so much heart and generosity.
So what does Vallée need to do to become Vallée again? To start deciding on what he wants to do again. Maybe find a way to make the Joplin film? Definitively the Franklin film one. And return to Montreal to work on his own projects and to engage more with his community. It’s not the cynical and angry Vallée that we love but the one of a youthful exuberance, perseverance and dreams.
In the meanwhile, Big Little Lies is right at the start of its run and it promises to be one of his grandest projects yet. There's hope.