With a unique visual grasp of grief and internal turmoil, Jean-Marc Vallee's storytelling shaped the aesthetic of enduring

With Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects, Jean-Marc Vallee subtly renovated our palette of pain in the years leading up to this pandemic. It explains why, on learning of his demise, it felt like someone had stalled my sequence of healing.

Rahul Desai January 05, 2022 12:45:09 IST
With a unique visual grasp of grief and internal turmoil, Jean-Marc Vallee's storytelling shaped the aesthetic of enduring

Shailene Woodley in Big Little Lies

Where were you when you heard? I was, not for the first time, watching a 75-year-old Leonard Cohen conclude his London concert with 'Take This Waltz.' When a friend’s text displayed an article about Jean-Marc Vallée’s death, I paused the YouTube video.

Cohen’s eyes were closed, in artful prayer.

I frantically googled for confirmation. Maybe it was fake news. Was it Vallé or Vallée? Slowly but surely, celebrity tweets trickled in. A photograph of 58-year-old Vallée emerged on my timeline, a sobering reminder that this was the first photograph of his I had ever come across. Most of us are so used to accepting the vision of those behind the camera that we often let their names evoke an image of how they physically look. I had Vallée down for a curly-haired and messy Canadian auteur, one of those too-talented-to-care sorts who wear shades in the dark. I did not expect a muscular movie-star face, salty hair, and searing grey eyes. I certainly did not expect to see the composer of the unseen. 

Three vivid moments invaded my head. I remembered the night I forgot how to breathe during the Big Little Lies finale. I paced frantically around my bedroom for 15 minutes, prolonging that adrenalin rush – of watching something truly special – by devouring all literature on it. I messaged my partner in a surge of hyperbolic thrill: "This is possibly the greatest show ever made."

I also remembered grabbing my phone to watch, re-watch, and re-re-watch the haunting last shot of Sharp Objects after my laptop died. I remembered doing a Wild-Demolition double bill, and then going for a long swim to reflect on Vallée’s cinema of reflection. The tiles underwater looked like the dissolve transitions that movies often use to isolate dreams – and flights of fancy – from reality. 

Even as I recalled the headiness of those nights, it became apparent that these were not just any flashbacks. These were Vallée flashbacks. They came as short and sharp bursts of the past, an incoherent feeling broken into sensory vials of coherence. Rather than standing out as one complete scene, pieces of it blended into my current moment: same colour tone, seamless cuts, bereft of linearity and aural identity. The soundscape of my present – a clock ticking, crows cawing, a creaky ceiling fan, a pressure cooker simmering in the kitchen – washed over these fractured snippets of history. The little details enveloping those nights – an intense phone call, a mild fever, an early flight – punctured the emotional continuity of loss.

I thought of the stray paragraph in my drafts folder about how Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, my favourite film of this millennium, turns the Vallée flashback into one of the foremost examples of narrative subterfuge. I thought of how I snuck in a line about Vallée while writing an essay on Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, and how I harked back to his Café de Flore while watching the inter-cutting anxiety of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter. I thought of how editing is, at its core, the architecture of feeling. I thought of how Vallée revolutionised the act of thinking. In short, I mourned for the filmmaker in the language of his films. 

Scrolling through the tributes, I tried to make sense of why his – of all the untimely celebrity deaths – felt closer to home. Vallée happened to me late in life. As someone who defines evolution as the art of preserving the rearview mirror, I found his style appealing. But it was more than just his penchant to film the unfilmable or score the soul. Soon, it became more than just his craft.

Over the last 21 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I, like many others, have taken to looking back in the hope of locating a path forward. Most of us have searched for new ways to process the trauma of being trapped at the crossroads of history. For those who have watched his work, Vallée’s storytelling – especially his unique visual grasp of grief and internal turmoil – has shaped the aesthetic of enduring. It has lent inertia the dignity of suspended motion. I have often found myself revisiting scenes in which a character’s mindscape is uncontrolled, where memories arrive unannounced yet not unwelcomed. 

In an age where losing oneself is now an echo of living, Vallée’s portraits of human melancholy have accumulated into a prescient blueprint for the future.

His legacy seems to have transcended art, and seeped into the personality of survival; his filmmaking existed for this moment, for the now, subtly renovating our palette of pain in the years leading up to this pandemic. Perhaps it explains why, on learning of his demise, it felt like someone had stalled my sequence of healing. As a writer who counts on orchestrating the shifting notes of the past, I felt like my head had lost its conductor. 

Once I snapped out of the trance, I tweeted some disjointed words. I wanted the world to know that Vallée meant a great deal to me. Leonard Cohen’s eyes were still shut. I unpaused the screen. In a baritone of antique beauty, the Canadian poet started to close out the concert with lyrical introductions of each band member. “Your sweet shepherd of strings, on the laud, Javier Mas,” he cooed. “The signature of steady on the pedal steel, Bob Metzger. The prince of precision, our time-keeper on the drums…." These intros – not unlike flashback montages in a Vallée movie – were indistinguishable from the main act. They were being said and sung at once. Musical glances of gratitude were exchanged. As I reached for the remote, I could swear I heard Cohen end with: “The maestro of memory and the tamer of time, on the megaphone, Jean-Marc Vallée.” 

Rahul Desai is a film critic and programmer, who spends his spare time travelling to all the places from the movies he writes about.

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