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Finding Some Magic: Jean-Marc Vallée (1963-2021)

In a career that ended way too early, director Jean-Marc Vallée centered flawed characters in a way that made us see ourselves in those flaws. He felt like he had figured something out in the 2010s, working with incredible talent, and then directing those stars to Oscars and Emmys. One could say he was an actor’s director in that he knew how to bring out the best of performers like Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, and Amy Adams. His death on the day after Christmas in a cabin in Quebec of undisclosed causes was a shock to the system. Despite all of his success, it truly felt like he was just getting started.

Born and raised in Montreal, Vallée studied at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and made a number of successful short films in the ‘90s and shot music videos before his first feature in 1995, “Black List," which was nominated for nine Genie Awards. His real international breakthrough came a decade later in “C.R.A.Z.Y.,” a coming-of-age story about growing up with four brothers and the sting of homophobia in Quebec. It was one of the highest-grossing films in Quebec that year, and won a stunning 11 Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture. “C.R.A.Z.Y.” was such a hit in its home country that it made a list of the Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time that was published by TIFF in 2015.

Of course, Hollywood noticed. Vallée was tapped to direct “The Young Victoria,” working from a script by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes. Vallée’s gift with actors really came through in this telling of the story of the early years of Queen Victoria. He never allows the film to become a cold costume drama, focusing as much on performers like Emily Blunt and Paul Bettany as he does the design and craft. An emphasis on music would follow Vallée throughout his career, and he reportedly played rock music like The Rolling Stones on the set to create the write mood. Three Academy Award nominations would follow.

After another Canadian hit in 2011’s “Café de Flore” (which was the most nominated film at the Genie Awards that year), Vallée directed 2013’s “Dallas Buyers Club,” which would become an awards season juggernaut, winning Oscars for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Editing (which was technically for Vallée as he used the alias John Mac McMurphy).

Vallée wasted no time and jumped right into production on “Wild,” which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 2014. For this viewer, it’s his best film, a story of a woman (Reese Witherspoon) who is determined to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and what she learns about herself along the way. Nick Hornby’s screenplay is underrated, but I also always admired the empathy in Vallée’s direction here. It feels like he really cares about his characters and draws performances from Witherspoon and Laura Dern that are among their career-best.

After the disappointing “Demolition,” Vallée turned to TV with one of the biggest mini-series of all time in HBO’s “Big Little Lies.” Based on the book by Liane Moriarty, “Big Little Lies” reunited Vallée with Witherspoon and Dern, co-starring with Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Adam Scott, Alexander Skarsgard, and Zoe Kravitz. That first season is a beautifully constructed blend of mystery and character drama that has already influenced the form of the HBO mini-series (you can see its fingerprints all over "Mare of Easttown"). Vallée never over-plays the melodrama or the thriller aspects. You can tell he’s legitimately interested in character, first and foremost, and he allows everything that works to come out of that interest.

The same is true of “Sharp Objects,” which will be Vallée’s final project. Once again, Vallée directs a story that centers trauma through the saga of Camille Preaker, a reporter who returns to her hometown to cover a murder and ends up dealing with the skeletons in her closet. Amy Adams stars, but Vallée’s gift in his HBO projects was also one of ensemble. There are great turns here from Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina, and Eliza Scanlen too. He had a gift of never allowing his A-list stars to steal all the focus, leveling the playing field in his ensembles in a way that allowed everyone to shine. Including him. 

Jean-Marc Vallée had two children. We send our deepest condolences to them.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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