His trademark was an unforced affinity with outsiders, as he discussed in a 2019 interview: “I have a thing for underdogs, where they’ve got to put up a fight to find their happiness and to find themselves. I guess I had to do it, too, and that’s why… I like to present and defend these characters and serve these projects.”
Yet he also became beloved of the Hollywood A-list, coaching Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Reece Witherspoon to awards recognition, and affording stars a rare creative freedom on set: working office hours wherever possible, shooting quickly and allowing performers to determine their own movements rather than putting them through a punishing rehearsal schedule.
Vallée’s empathetic streak shone through his international breakthrough feature C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), a period coming-of-age saga centred on a teenager wrestling with his identity amid the turbulence of the 1960s and 70s. A raucous crowdpleaser, it swept the Canadian Oscars, the Genies, taking home gongs for Best Film, Direction and Screenplay, before repeating its success at the French-Canadian equivalent, the Jutras.
It was distributed widely, convincing producers Graham King and Martin Scorsese to hire Vallée to direct Julian Fellowes’ script for The Young Victoria (2009). Though respectfully received, this heritage drama proved a little bruising for its maker: “I lost creative control… We weren’t making the same film, and it took a while before I realised.” Nevertheless, it put Vallée on the Academy’s radar, as the film earned three Oscar nominations, winning for Sandy Powell’s costume design.
After returning to Canada for the overdetermined weepie Café de Flore (2011), Vallée rallied with Dallas Buyers Club. Inspired by the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texan rodeo rider who smuggled illegal drugs from Mexico to help himself and his fellow AIDS patients, it found eccentric, lively rhythms that shook off worthiness and stuck with viewers and voters alike. It won three Oscars, for McConaughey, Jared Leto (as Woodroof’s transgender associate Rayon) and make-up, and was nominated for a further three, including Best Picture.
Attempts to repeat that film’s success were mixed. The following year’s Wild was a sturdy study in self-determination: adapted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by Cheryl Strayed, who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone after her divorce, it landed Oscar nods for star Reece Witherspoon and Laura Dern in a supporting role. Yet Demolition (2015), with Jake Gyllenhaal as an investment banker sent spiralling after his wife’s death, disappeared without trace commercially. And a planned Janis Joplin biopic, starring Amy Adams, unravelled amid legal battles.
With superhero movies muscling thoughtful, adult drama out of the multiplex, Vallée pivoted to television, directing two high-profile HBO series in quick succession. The first season of Big Little Lies was polished, illustrious, Emmy-winning soap; the Adams-starring Gillian Flynn adaptation Sharp Objects was more formally daring, its intricate editing (by Vallée himself, under the pseudonym Jai M. Vee) unpicking the layers of childhood trauma repressed by its reporter heroine.
Despite that show’s psychological complexity, Vallée insisted he was still the same creative he’d always been: “I love it. You know, I’m like a kid on a set, a kid playing with a huge toy and having fun.”
Vallée was born on March 9, 1963 in Montreal, the youngest of two brothers. A tempestuous teen (“I had a little bit of an anger management problem, and would kick and put holes in the walls”), he found an outlet in music, DJing at parties with records his father, a radio-station programmer, had brought back to the family home.
He studied business management and film at the Collège Ahuntsic, before making his name as a director of music videos and short films in his early twenties. His feature debut came with the legal thriller Liste noire/Black List (1995), a major Quebecois hit; Mario van Peebles, whom Vallée had directed in a 1996 episode of the anthology series Strangers, then recruited the promising tyro to direct Los Locos (1997), a standalone Western sold as a sequel to van Peebles’ earlier Posse (1993).
At the time of his death, he was attached to direct Gorilla and the Bird, based on Zack McDermott’s memoir about a lawyer who experiences a psychotic break. He was also developing a feature about John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
A keen motorcyclist in his spare time, Vallée received the Order of Canada in 2017 and the National Order of Quebec in 2020. Interviewed in 2019, he confessed to wondering about the future: “We’re here for 80 years—90 if we’re lucky. Particularly us men. But the trip is amazing. Life is precious. I’m 56 and I’m starting to go, '80?' That means I have 24 years left. Why are we here? Why am I doing this? Art has this… power, maybe? To change mentalities or maybe change perceptions. ‘Oh, I see this differently because I saw this thing. I was told this story.’”
He is survived by Emile and Alex, his two sons with the writer Chantal Cadieux, whom he married in 1990 and divorced in 2006.
Jean-Marc Vallée, born March 9, 1963, died December 25, 2021.