Jean-Marc Vallee Remembered: An Admirer of the Human Spirit

The first time I met Jean-Marc Vallée, he was wearing a black T-shirt and jeans. Silver zippers and studs ran the length of his black leather jacket, and his hair – dark brown, peppered with gray – was combed neatly off his forehead. It was March, 2019. We were both in Careyes, Mexico for Arte Careyes film festival. The Oscar-nominated French-Canadian filmmaker, whose death Sunday at age 58 has shocked the industry, was mentoring directors on the rise.

The magic of Arte Careyes is that it’s a small, intimate fest. Perched on a remote strip of the Pacific coast, movies are screened under palm trees and starry night skies; attendees draped in caftans gather in the village square to eat lunch together and dinner. At Arte Careyes, there is no division between “Hollywood movie director” and aspiring cineastes. Jean-Marc was seated among us, surrounded by photographers, artists and students studying film at universities across Latin America, from Mexico City to Santiago, Chile. While covering the festival for The Hamden Journal, I watched these budding artists as they leaned in to ask Jean-Marc questions. Later, I would hear Jean-Marc tell one such student, “I came here to teach, but I’m learning more from you.”

That was who Jean-Marc was: open, approachable, an admirer of the human spirit. He radiated a sweetness and warmth you don’t often find in well-established Hollywood directors.

Despite more than a decade of studying French and myriad sojourns to Paris, my ability to converse in anything approaching native proficiency leaves much to be desired. But Jean-Marc nonetheless humored me. We spoke about parenting and relationships and the screenplay he was currently re-writing, a biopic about John Lennon and Yoko Ono. We talked about the soundtrack he envisioned for the film, and his favorite brand of T-shirt, which was John Varvatos. “I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a snob,” he joked. Upon request, he “directed” me in a selfie. Days later, I snapped a portrait of him on the beach, scratching an itch in his ear, a photograph to which I facetiously referred as “Le Penseur.”

Music was central to Jean-Marc’s artistic vision, maybe arguably even more so than the discipline of filmmaking itself. “I always wanted to be a rock star,” he revealed. We spent hours waxing nostalgic over our favorite albums growing up, from Springsteen to Marvin Gaye to the Beatles. Despite being a fan, Jean-Marc had never seen Bruce Springsteen in concert, and I simply could not get over this. “You have to go,” I told him. “It’s like being in church.” We talked about books and food and bonded over being Pisces, acknowledging that astrology was quackery and still inexplicably on point.

“We are water,” he said. “That is why we are so emotional. That is why we are artists.”

That July, I flew from Los Angeles to Montreal to cover the Just for Laughs comedy festival and met Jean-Marc for lunch. Figures in the entertainment industry often extend personal invites, but rarely do they come to fruition. Jean-Marc was wildly different. In March he promised we’d meet for lunch, and in July we did.

Jean-Marc was a regular at L’Express, a famed Parisian-style bistro on Rue Saint Denis, where the maitre’d had reserved two seats for us at the counter. Jean-Marc slipped off his Ray-Bans and brushed a speck of lint off his Iggy Pop T-shirt. He laughed in mock embarrassment as I ordered soupe à l’oignon in my Bostonian-accented French. We could do whatever I wanted that day, he said, so I told him I’d like to see Leonard Cohen’s boyhood home.

It was hot that day in Montreal, and I’d foolishly worn jeans and boots with three-inch heels. I’d forgotten my sneakers in Los Angeles. Despite my protestations, Jean-Marc insisted we rent bicycles.

“How far away is it?” I asked, willing my bike to stay upright as it bounced over cobblestone alleyways.

“Not far!” he called back. “About another six kilometers!”

“I think I need different shoes,” I told him.

“You’re fine,” Jean-Marc assured me, swerving one-handed down narrow backstreets. “Look at me. I’m in flip-flops that are falling apart!”

Jean-Marc pointed out sites along the way – candy stores, bagel shops, his favorite movie theater, the kind with ripped velvet seats and floors sticky with stale popcorn butter. I’d been to Montreal before, many times, but this was my first time on a bike tour. He waved to people as we cycled past, stopping several times to say hello to local friends, by the post office, in front of a Portuguese bakery, at a shoe store where I found a pair of espadrilles to buy.

I was sweaty and flushed by the time we reached Leonard Cohen’s childhood address on Belmont Street in Westmount, a leafy Montreal enclave. We sat on the front steps of the brick house, posed for photos, recited stanzas from select songs. I shared a story about meeting Cohen at a cousin’s bar mitzvah at a synagogue in West L.A., nearly 13 years earlier, and how my then-husband’s step-grandmother chastised me for not greeting her first. As sunset approached, Jean-Marc graciously indulged my live, impromptu rendition of “So Long, Marianne,” a version guaranteed to place last in a globalwide singing contest. “Très belle!” he joked.

We kept in touch after that. We’d exchange texts, emails. This past summer, as coronavirus continued to rear its ugly head, I found myself at an outdoor restaurant in Malibu where Jean-Marc was dining with friends. He invited me to join and we reminisced about Careyes, Montreal and my lackluster bicycle riding abilities. He updated me on his John and Yoko project, a film he was so eager to make.

At one point that night, I reminded Jean-Marc that Filippo Brignone, the founder of Arte Careyes, still had Jean-Marc’s award for participating as an artistic mentor at the fest. Somehow, in the rush to get to the airport, the award had been left behind.

“Filippo wants you to come visit,” I told him. “You have an open invitation to stay at his home.”

Jean-Marc nodded, smiled. Around us, the ocean air cooled. The pandemic, politics, death – the past two years had been difficult for so many of us. But a sense of promise was on the horizon.

“I can’t wait to go back to Careyes,” Jean-Marc said. “I want to. And I will.”