Jean-Marc Vallee’s women are that rare breed that flirt with the idea of avenging trauma with a sense of self-consuming depravity.
In a roundtable interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2019, Jean-Marc Vallee claimed he fought with his producers for ‘9 AM to 6 PM’ shoots. “I also fight for the music budget, to put music at the centre of my stories,” the director added.
Vallee’s penchant for using music as an iconic quotation rather than serviceable backdrop was a keen aspect of his work that many will remember for not just how it looked, but also how it sounded. For Sharp Objects, Vallee pushed HBO to use Led Zepplin as the basis for a deeply grim series. The director had also claimed on record that he wanted to be a rockstar for his ear for music and its crescendos, evident in his use of Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘Cold Little Heart’ for Big Little Lies. But more than his musical eccentricities, Vallee, who died aged 58 today, knew how to cautiously illuminate some of the darkest places known to women.
Vallee’s most illustrious moment as director of course arrived with his Oscar nomination for Dallas Buyers Club, a film that rejuvenated not one, but two careers with Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto pulling off career-defining performances. Both actors won Oscars, and incredibly, both have since only flattered to deceive. A painfully earnest film about the real story of a Texas-based AIDS patient who secretly imported drugs to the state to help others, the film was a slow-burn knockout. Unlike most welfare, heart-in-the-right-place films, it was paced miserly, with life-like ordinariness.
This sleight of hand, that Vallee carried within, would echo with his next big project, HBO’s terrific adaptation of Liane Morarty’s Big Little Lies. A riposte to the giddiness of Sex and the City, Big Little Lies was about the internal world of women, the unsaid realities that cut through the sheet of their external glamour.
Big Little Lies cast heavyweights like Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, and Reese Witherspoon (with whom Vallee also made the minimal Wild) as its most cornered women. Celeste (Kidman) is in an abusive marriage that she lusts for with a sense of performative self-harm. Witherspoon, the loquacious, uncertain anchor of everything around, is on the contrary, cracked and astray within the ocean of her own world. Vallee’s direction does not frame any of the show’s women as victims alone, but hesitantly complicit in their own marginalisation. Women, the show tells us, can unknowingly undermine their own agency, and worse, each other’s, for the temporary desire to replace someone as the centre of focus. The A-list show probably aimed higher than it could leap by casting Meryl Streep in a follow-up season that lost some of the revelatory qualities of the first.
Vallee’s highest point perhaps came with the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, a sinister, almost dreary show that withdrew the torque of racy crime thrillers to imprison you within its world of despicable lows. Amy Adams, in a career-best (how many times has Vallee extracted that out of actors) performance, played Camille Parker, a tenacious reporter with a history of self-harm who returns to her home town in order to investigate a case and exorcise old demons. Parker, instead, finds new ones, each more horrid and brutal than the next. But what Vallee is especially good at is making the switch from the wine-drinking melodrama of high-street Big Little Lies with the bewitching earthiness of a arid and unforgiving town in Missouri.
Each drama is led by its women. However flawed and culpable, they are the acoustical notations that pull together stories that could so easily become drab commentaries on the state of women in the world. Instead, Vallee uses their flaws as ammunition to guide moments in which power and agency are suddenly offered. These moments, Vallee’s work told us, can culminate in either relief or criminal yet liberating acts of reclamation.
It is something that most filmmakers have reserved only for men. In both Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects, a woman’s indiscretion is not chastised as a wrong in the world of men, but as an inconvenience in a world being fought for by other women. If trauma is genesis, how can hate and rebellion be far behind.
Incredibly, Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects are set in different worlds but echo each other’s misery. Both Celeste and Camille have been pushed to an edge where self-harm renews your sense of purpose and worth. Maybe hurt and hate are building blocks too, and it is not just men who romanticise it with grubby skin and poetic manuscripts about decline.
Of course, Vallee wanted to be a rockstar for he saw diminished rockstars in his characters, especially in the women who honed the spirit even if they could not wear it on the streets. Thank you, nonetheless, for bring them to us Mr Vallee. May you rest in music.
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