Interview With Director Jean-Marc Vallée

Credits include Café de Flore; Wild; and Dallas Buyers Club

Music has much to say in the work of Quebecois filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée. His music choices are front and centre and sometimes even take over to advance his narratives, like the way it does in his latest film Café de Flore with the unmistakable first bars of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ at the start. Tracks from that extraordinary pop classic re-emerge throughout the mix.

Besides laying down soundtracks for his movies, Valle enjoys creating playlists—which he believes is a boy thing—and manning the turntable at parties. ‘I’m a frustrated DJ,’ he jokes through some disconcerting reverberation down the line from Montreal. ‘I make playlists for friends—and for every single woman that I’ve loved in my life’.

To add to the fluidity of the narrative in Café de Flore—itself the name of a music track— screenwriter Vallée tells two love stories than run in parallel, located on different continents and set 42 years apart. In Montreal in 2011, a woman and mother of young daughters is struggling after her husband of more than 20 years has left her for another woman, the beauteous Rose (Evelyne Brochu). In Paris meanwhile it is 1969, and a hairdresser is battling to bring up her Downs Syndrome-affected son on her own. Against the odds, Jacqueline (French singer-songwriter Vanessa Paradis) has created a formidable learning program for her son Laurent (Marin Gerrier) to disprove the prognosis for her disabled son, and she pursues it with a fierce and intense devotion. The loving relationship these two portray on screen is really utterly astonishing.

The character Antoine the DJ, played by Kevin Parent, a singer-songwriter well-know to Canadian audiences, appears to take the lead at the start, but Vallée agrees that the film can be read as though it is the product of the imagination of Antoine’s former wife Carole (Helene Florent). It can be seen as ‘more the story of Carole who tries to understand why she cannot let go. And she’s going to invent herself a past life in order to accept and move on, move forward and be at peace with herself’. From the point when she realises ‘that’s she’s finally got it’.

Although the linear shape of the narrative becomes apparent in the end, it is not before Valle has made a virtue of foregrounding his characters’ subjective memory and states of feeling. He wanted ‘to make a beautiful love story with some sort of element of the supernatural’ and ‘to put some magic in it, make it bigger than life…almost like a fable’.

Other music that has found its way onto Vallée’s eclectic soundtrack includes work by The Cure, by Cole Porter and by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and there is a particularly haunting sequence by Icelandic postpunk band Sigur Ros—’Svefn-G-Englar’, which may or may not mean ‘sleepwalkers’! Even if, as Vallée suggests, the name of the track has no meaning, not even in Icelandic, the repetitive refrain that sounds like ‘It’s YOU-OU-OU-OU’ has meaning enough. And then there is the heartbeat, the strong chords, the lunatic laugh and the astonishing vocalisations from ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ accorded a special place, as it is in Vallée’s exuberant coming-of-age hit C.R.A.Z.Y. of some eight years ago.

When did the Pink Floyd album first speak to Vallée? He first heard the track ‘Money’ as a single on, vinyl, the old 45. For a 9 or 10-year-old it was ‘cool’, with its tinkling cash and ringing register. However, he continues ‘when I was older I listened to the album and discovered they were very avant-gardiste, very skilful for the period and very daring. Special, very moody. Bizarre and cool. … and what was your question about that?’

Since C.R.A.Z.Y., Vallée has directed The Young Victoria (2009), a humanising portrait of the icon of 19th century Britain that is a touching love story, politely eroticised, between the young queen (Emily Blunt) and her consort (Rupert Friend). Nothing inappropriately trippy here. The biopic of the monarch is more conventional, but an entirely charming new take on the woman before her name became synonymous with a particularly straight-backed brand of moral rectitude.

With Café de Flore taking the hazy form of a waking dream, Vallée was clearly determined to confound audience expectations. The concept of ‘lucidity’ is given a burl, only to be used to demonstrate that it comes to nought in matters of the heart. The recurring images of people with Down’s Syndrome suggests another strand for interpretation, including the angelic youngsters in Sigur Ros’ ‘Svefn-G-Englar’ However, the immersive experience continues to elude explanation until a connection between the twin narratives is finally made with shocking impact. Near the ‘don’t blink or you’ll miss it’ finale.

Vallée leaves us with some advice. ‘This film is like a puzzle, a big puzzle. You want to play the game of trying to solve the puzzle? Sit down, watch this, take it easy, you’ll have answers. You’ll be able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together at the end. Maybe you’ll need another screening—and why not?’

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