Jean-Marc Vallée loss C.R.A.Z.Y. Café de Flore

The monumental loss of Jean-Marc Vallée

“The beating heart at the centre of so many stories has gone cold and we’ve lost an artist who found light in the darkness.”

Words feel insufficient in describing the impact C.R.A.Z.Y. had when it was released in 2005. At our all girl’s Catholic school with little exposure to Quebec cinema at that point in our lives, the film felt like a revelation: It was joyous, rebellious, and full of life. From that point on, a group of us watched it obsessively. “Emmenez-Moi” by Charles Aznavour became one of our graduation songs. The film was an obsession in a way that can only happen when you are in your teens, where every feeling and every song feels like the most important thing that has ever happened. We didn’t even understand that the movie was making waves well beyond our classrooms outside of our little adolescent bubble. 

C.R.A.Z.Y. Jean-Marc Vallée
Marc-André Grondin in C.R.A.Z.Y.

C.R.A.Z.Y. was Jean-Marc Vallée’s fourth film, but his breakout hit. It swept the Genie and Jutras and was nominated to TIFF’s Top 10. In 2005, the movie became the third-highest-grossing film at the Quebec box office, losing only to Star Wars and Harry Potter. For Jean-Marc Vallée, who had Hollywood ambitions, the success of C.R.A.Z.Y. opened doors, and he was offered to direct The Young Victoria. He followed that up with one more film in Quebec, Café de Flore, before he built himself into the master of HBO melodrama. 

Café de Flore features the parallel stories of a woman in 1970s Paris raising her son with Down’s Syndrome and a contemporary tale of a DJ in Montreal torn between his ex-wife and new girlfriend as he recovers from alcoholism. The connection between the two stories isn’t obvious until the last third, and the movie, also written by Vallée, echoes with ambition. 

In these two films, the thread of particular narrative obsessions emerges, particularly the relationship between parent and child. What does it mean to parent a child? When are you allowed to let go? On a fundamental level, it’s about the expectations the parent holds for their child and how they work through that strain. In Vallée’s work, love is never passive. It’s active and engaged. He examines the tension of loving someone else, especially when you can’t love yourself.

In the flashbacks to the past, we mainly see this labour. Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) is the devoted mother who equates love with protection. She engages her son in various practical and emotional lessons to help him gain independence. She suffers for his happiness with the devotion of a saint, but as the film hits an inevitable crossroads, it becomes clear that she’s not ready to let go: she depends on her son as much as he depends on her. 

Café de Flore Jean-Marc Vallée
Évelyne Brochu and Kevin Parent in Café de Flore, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.

In the universe of all of Vallée’s films, the specialness of love is that it’s not a given. Not all parents love their children and vice-versa. Love, by its nature, is not earned. Of course, being kind, warm-hearted and compassionate can increase your chances, but it doesn’t entitle you to someone’s love either. The way that Jacqueline tries to hold onto love borders on obsessive, but can you blame her? Even when Vallée’s films are about “something else,” they are fundamentally about this yearning to be loved. Like most great storytellers, he feels that the pain of that experience drives dramatic decisions and encounters. What is love after all, but what lies at the centre of everything? 

It isn’t easy to put into words quickly, and without long reflection, the impact a filmmaker like Jean-Marc Vallée has had on so many lives. I was just a fan, a bystander touched by what his films meant to me. I can only begin to imagine the impact of his loss on those who knew and loved him best. The beating heart at the centre of so many stories has gone cold and we’ve lost an artist who found light in the darkness. ■

For a round-up of tributes to Jean-Marc Vallée, please click here.

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