Nov 4, 2011

Written & Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée: Filmmaker Spotlight

Well, here I am... a month later. If you want to know the truth, I chose to hold off my reviewing of the last film I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival-- Jean-Marc Vallée's "Café de flore"-- for one simple reason: I was so blown away by the director's profoundly moving visual style that I felt the need to explore his equally acclaimed work "C.R.A.Z.Y." so I could subsequently dedicate a blog post to his overlooked talent as a French-Canadian filmmaker (maybe I let a little too much time pass). So please continue reading for my reviews of both films mentioned above-- especially if you're looking for a new obscure director to begin obsessing over.

C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)

"C.R.A.Z.Y." is the coming-of-age story of Zachary Beaulieu, the fourth born of five sons, focusing on his continuous struggle to live up to his brothers in his father's eyes while refusing to face his true identity. As a kid, Zac has always felt different and disconnected from everyone else-- for being born on Christmas Day (1960), for not taking an interest in hockey like all the other boys, for secretly dressing up in his mother's clothing, etc.. Although his mother, a devout Catholic, looks at him as her miracle son, his overly conservative father fears that he is a "sissy" who will never grow up to be a real man. As he progresses into his teenage years, Zac tries to please his father by concealing his true nature with a new found passion for music and... "smoking up" (there's a nearly unparalleled amount of nicotine and marijuana consumption in this film). Up until his early 20s, he maintains a false image and a small reputation for being a somewhat carefree type around his peers, family, and girlfriend. It's also during these years that the already existent tensions between him and his wayward, drug addict brother Raymond escalate and thereafter bring about the resurfacing of his own feelings and memories that had long been suppressed. Zachary must ultimately come to terms with the one thing he has been denying all along... (You can figure out what that may be.)

Jean-Marc Vallée does a fine job crafting a very personal film that captures the quaint, close-knit feel of Quebec and all the drastic transformation the heavily Catholic and strictly Conservative French-Canadian population must undergo throughout the 60s and 70s. The film has a cool, rocking personality backed up by a fantastic soundtrack featuring era-defining songs from David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and many other big artists (as a matter of fact, Vallée had to cut his own salary to acquire all the music rights). In contrast to all the hip music, we are also reminded of the old-time world when Zac's father listens to the tunes Patsy Cline and Charles Aznavour. Music plays a key role in offering a genuine portrait of the world the characters live in.

I love how "C.R.A.Z.Y." manages to transcend the boundaries of your typical gay film (There, I gave that little part away!) by choosing not to focus as much on Zachary's sexual awakening during his teenage years as much as on the way his family interacts in response. If I were to categorize this film, I would have to call it a "family drama". But in reality, it's so much more than that. It skillfully blends sarcastic humor with heartfelt emotion, allowing you to get wrapped up in every character in the story.

Along with giving praise to Jean-Marc Vallée's sublime writing and direction, I would like to highlight a few outstanding performances, which equally contributed to the film's overall excellence. The director was able to cast his son, Émile Vallée, as Zachary from age 6 to 8-- you would be surprised at how well this kid acts. But the true star of this picture, if you ask me, is Marc-André Grondin, who plays the same character from age 15 to 21 (for the greater part of the film). I can't see anyone else being able to pull off the role as masterfully as he did. Not only does he look the part with his rigid yet soft facial features-- suggesting a duplicity of both aggressiveness and vulnerability-- but he also succeeds in completely soaking himself in his identity-crisis-stricken character. Since he isn't a big name actor, in my mind there was nothing separating him from Zachary Beaulieu. I would also like to give praise to Michel Côté and Danielle Proulx, who portrayed Zac's father and mother respectively, and whose performances were definitely deserving of the Genie Awards ("the Oscars of Canadian cinema") they ended up winning in 2006 (the film took home a grand total of 11 Genies).

If I were to wrap it up in a couple sentences, I would say that "C.R.A.Z.Y." is a very fun, imaginative film with a cool personality counterbalanced by a sweet tenderness rarely found in movies from the past decade. I can say without any hesitation that this bright gem is among the 5 greatest Canadian films I have ever seen. It's so terrific that I am now surpassing my just established sentence limit so I can say that you absolutely need to see it (if you haven't already).

Four stars out of four.

Café de flore (2011)

Jean-Marc Vallée returns to his beloved Québécois roots with his latest work, "Café de flore", one of the many films that screened at TIFF back in September (and that I was lucky enough to see). The story is composed of two interwoven narratives that-- only at first glance-- seem completely unrelated to one another.

The first story is set in present-day Montreal and centers on a recently divorced father of two girls, Antoine Godin (Kevin Parent), who leads a successful life as a professional DJ. Despite having found true happiness in his relationship with his girlfriend Rose (Evelyne Brochu), he feels a little remorseful for having left his ex-wife Carole (Hélène Florent), for whom he still cares deeply. Antoine understands that she continues struggling to move on with her life, heartbroken. And to make the situation they find themselves in even more difficult, their eldest daughter persistently plays their nostalgic love song with hopes of reuniting her parents.

The second story is set in Paris in 1969 and focuses on Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis), a self-sufficient, loving single mother who becomes the embodiment of perseverance and selflessness as she promises to devote herself both physically and spiritually to her son Laurent, who has been diagnosed with Down syndrome. She spends every minute of spare time with her beloved young boy with the goal to elongate his limited life expectancy. One day, when Laurent begins to be infatuated by Véronique, a new girl in his class-- who, incidentally, also has Down syndrome-- Jacqueline is struck by an overwhelming feeling as she fears that her inseparable bond with the only person she loves will be be lost with time.

Up until the very end of the film, it seems like the only link between both stories is the music the characters listen to (the jazz album "Café de flore" appears in the second story while a certain remix is featured in the first one), but as we progress further into this mystical mystery, we learn that there is something much deeper tying together the characters and their stories of love and loss. 

Knowing that "Café de flore" would be composed of intertwined stories, I was initially a little reluctant to seeing it and very worried that its structure would collapse within the first few minutes of the film. To my pleasant surprise, this modern approach to storytelling proved to be ultimately rewarding. I believe credit is due to the film editor, who is-- believe it or not-- Jean-Marc Vallée, again. It's nice to hear that he had control of almost every visual aspect of his own work of art. With Vallée's perfectly orchestrated editing, the audience is able to follow the story without ever sensing an abrupt switch between story lines. In the film's entirety, not once did I feel that some scenes were fragmented or disjointed from others. Vallée always progresses deeper into his creation by carefully and seamlessly shifting between narratives just at the right time, creating a smooth, fluid tempo. Briefly, everything flows like a river. 

Just like in "C.R.A.Z.Y.", music is a vital element to this film. Jean-Marc Vallée selects many tunes with ethereal, ambient qualities to match the profound thoughts and feelings of all the characters. While he features some more Pink Floyd ("Speak to Me/Breathe"), he makes of Sigur Ros's "Svefn-g-englar" the film's most haunting musical piece-- by far.

There are far too many impressive performances in "Café de flore" to name. Vallée must be what one would call an "actor's director", because he seems to continuously squeeze out the most confident, natural performances from all of his actors-- young or old-- in order to achieve his goal to craft a realistic family drama. He even went to the lengths of finding two children who have Down syndrome in real life for the roles of Laurent and Véronique (these are two "performances" that will make your jaw drop). This is proof of his everlasting adherence to realism as a filmmaker.

In sum, "Café de flore" is a sensual, deeply touching chef-d'oeuvre that will have you shivering every minute in pure emotional awe. It never comes across as overly sentimental, but rather genuinely heartfelt. I can't recall the last time I found myself on the verge of tears while simultaneously smiling at the bittersweet beauty of a film. Come to think of it, there isn't a single movie from 2011 that I could recommend seeing more than this one. I believe it's an essential viewing for anyone who has felt the most fundamental of human emotions. (That means you... I hope)

Another four stars out of four.
Transcendent. Sublime.

To end this review on a different note, I'd like to address myself to my own country: Dear Canada, why didn't you nominate this film for next year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Film? Do you not want to increase your chances of winning? You suck!


I demand you to watch these two films!