The mad genius of Jean-Marc Vallee

A true international indie filmmaker cracks the Hollywood code

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

It seems I have something in common with the producers of “Demolition,” the new film from Jean-Marc Vallee, which opens April 8 (finally). I say finally because I caught “Demolition” in September when it kicked off the Toronto International Film Festival’s 40th anniversary. The coveted opening night spot usually sends the message that the selection deserves fast-track consideration in the best picture discussion during awards season coverage, with additional buzz bestowed on the director, writer and stars. And with festival stalwart Jake Gyllenhaal—who just a couple of years ago delivered a powerful one-two combination with “Prisoners” and “Enemy”—leading the way, such assumptions could easily be mistaken as a foregone conclusion.

But, back to the connection I share with the producing team behind “Demolition.” You see, they decided that Vallee was their guy after catching “Cafe de Flore” and it just so happens that I stumbled upon “Cafe de Flore” on the streaming service MUBI, after thoroughly enjoying “Dallas Buyers Club” and figuring it was time to become a Jean-Marc Vallee completist. “Dallas Buyers Club” rocked and rolled its way through a cynical press corps back in 2013. While not quite fully prepared for the Matthew McConaughey assault that was on its way, there was even less advance warning about the fully inhabited turn by an unrecognizable Jared Leto. Yet, the performances—not the least bit flashy or garishly dramatic in that actorly way—obscured the firm and steady hand of Vallee at the helm. His touch wasn’t exactly invisible; the visual flow of the narrative simply refused to draw undue attention and he wound up sharing an Academy Award nomination for Best Film Editing with Martin Pensa.

Curiosity got the better of me though, so when the MUBI team added “Cafe de Flore” to the mix during my trial membership period, I jumped at the opportunity, and I found myself caught in the tidal pull of both a surreal narrative and a hypnotic visual landscape that capsized my senses and somehow buoyed me all at once. I suppose that’s what passionate love stories can do to us though, and Vallee as writer and director maintained full command. Like a musician with one ear attuned to live improvisational instrumentation and the other keyed into sampled sound bytes streaming from a headphone speaker, Vallee remixed the period story of a mother’s love for a disabled child with the contemporary tale of a DJ in Montreal, struggling to manage relationships and success. The film dances and sings like the wind, whispering softly, even when the beat pulses and threatens to escape from the body.

I can only imagine that is what the “Demolition” team saw and felt, whenever they screened “Cafe de Flore,” and decided to bring him in for a conversation about their project. What they heard from him must have cemented the deal, just as it did for me a few weeks ago when I snagged a few minutes of time with him over the phone, to discuss “Demolition” and his approach to filmmaking. I asked him what it is that he brings to the mix, even when he hasn’t written the script that makes a “Jean-Marc Vallee” film.

He paused thoughtfully before responding, almost humming, and the sound felt like it was coming from his brain rather than his mouth. “I think its because I react to characters, that’s what I bring. It’s how I see, how I like to explore cinema—from the main character’s point of view—how I like to use music.”

And character certainly matters. Think of Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) and Rayon (Leto) in “Dallas Buyers Club” or more recently, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) in “Wild.” All real people, damaged individuals, but the character of these characters jumps off the screen, under the direction of Vallee.

“There seems to be a link,” he continues, “between these characters. They are going through crisis or having to fight, to put up a fight to achieve their goals … to find their happiness, whatever it is. And I kind of react to that. I’m meticulous. I’m very picky because choosing your film is like choosing your lifestyle. If I’m going to put two years or three years of my life into a film, I want to wake up happy and serve this f–king thing, so it better be good. It better touch me. It better be worthwhile.”

Vallee seeks that connection, that passion in the work, and so, too, do his collaborators. McConaughey was beginning a creative uptick that landed him an Academy Award and vaulted him into the rarefied air of the dramatic A-list. Leto already tended to walk on the wild side. Witherspoon displayed a degree of daring that comes after having achieved the comfort and security of success.

And that is where Gyllenhaal lives as well, stalking like a panther, hungry for blood and the fight. He hears the heartbeat of his prey, and his own pulse in his ears too. Or maybe, like the others, he simply heard the mad genius of Vallee’s beautiful mind, issuing a challenge to break away from the routine. Demolish convention.

Come to the “Cafe” with me, Vallee beckons.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at and visit his blog for additional film reviews at

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at and visit his blog for additional film reviews at You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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