Les Auteurs: Quebec directors make their mark in world cinema

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What draws so many Canadians to Hollywood? The same things that draw everybody else: the beach, the glamour, the opportunity to use “lunch” as a verb. It helps that America’s northern neighbors do a decent job at pretending they were raised in the lower 48 and have no strong opinions about hockey. The talent pipeline is so well established, in fact, that the 1985 mockumentary The Canadian Conspiracy posited a nefarious plot to subvert Hollywood masterminded by Lorne Greene. The Hollywood Reporter even published a 2013 report on the industry’s top 33 “Power Canadians.”  

But those power Canadians have often been onscreen talent like Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds. Excepting Toronto’s avant-horror maestro David Cronenberg, the Canadian directors making waves outside their home provinces have tended to be art-house auteurs like Sarah Polley (Toronto), Guy Maddin (Winnipeg) and Atom Egoyan (British Columbia).

That is starting to change now, however, with a growing cadre of filmmakers from Montreal making their marks in world cinema as well as Hollywood, while retaining their identity as Quebecois directors. Montreal has deep film roots, after all, boasting the nation’s first movie theatre (1896) and serving as an epicenter for the “Direct Cinema” documentary movement in the 1950s and ’60s. But since the international success of Denys Arcand’s work in the 1980s, it has taken the comparatively recent emergence of directors like Denis Villeneuve, Jean-Marc Vallée, Xavier Dolan and Philippe Falardeau to put the city back on the film world’s map.

Their styles cover the gamut and reflect a broad interest in subject matter and settings. It has been suggested that this is due to the European-angled cultural spirit of French-Canadian Quebec, as opposed to Toronto’s more American-attuned sensibility. One characteristic shared by Villeneuve, Vallée, Dolan and Falardeau—besides a lack of provincialism and a propensity for working with Reese Witherspoon—is their ability to translate strong personal narratives into larger dramatic frameworks without losing their intimacy.

Although Falardeau almost fell into the industry by accident by winning a TV contest, he made his mark known relatively quickly. His early films, The Left-Hand Side of the Fridge (2000) and Congorama (2006), were off-kilter comedies that met with so-so reactions. 2011’s Monsieur Lazhar vaulted him into prominence. This heart-tugging adaptation of a one-act play dealt with an Algerian immigrant to Montreal who takes a job as a middle-school substitute teacher. He hits a cultural minefield once his expectations for the students and those of their parents and other teachers turn out to be radically different. Winner of six Genie Awards and nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, it put Falardeau on the list of directors to watch.

His follow-up film, The Good Life (2014), was another emotional culture-clash story. Starring Witherspoon and Corey Stoll as Americans aiding several Sudanese Lost Boy refugees find their way in the exotic land of Kansas City, it had all the broad appeal of The Blind Side but couldn’t find an audience. 2015’s political comedy My Internship in Canada never quite got released in the United States, perhaps due to the specificity of its material. But now comes the release of Falardeau’s American indie boxing drama Chuck (previously The Bleeder), starring Liev Schreiber as Chuck Wepner, Sylvester Stallone’s real-life inspiration for Rocky Balboa. Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman and Elisabeth Moss round out the strong cast.

Exemplifying the stylistic breadth of Montreal directors is the gap between Falardeau’s proficiently non-showy manner and the aggressively formal modus operandi of Xavier Dolan, whose resume includes music-videos (Adele) and fashion (Louis Vuitton model). The kind of divisive auteur who will still get labeled an “enfant terrible” in middle age, Dolan burst onto the scene in 2009 with I Killed My Mother, an attention-grabbing semi-autobiographical melodrama about the spiky relationship between a young gay man (played by Dolan) and his mother. Since Dolan was just nineteen at the time, much of his buzz has ever since focused on his age. Not surprisingly, Dolan’s work tends to make a splash when premiering, as nearly all his films have, at Cannes.

After a string of sometimes lurid and always fetchingly shot family dramas like Heartbeats (2010) and his most celebrated work, Mommy (2014)—for which he shared the Jury Prize at Cannes with fellow divisive troublemaker Jean-Luc Godard—Dolan ran into rougher waters with 2016’s It’s Only the End of the World. His biggest star vehicle yet, it featured Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel and Lea Seydoux, and received a much rougher reaction from the Cannes crowd. The usually opinionated Dolan snapped off some acerbic comments about the festival and announced that his next film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, his first English-language work, wouldn’t be appearing at the festival that arguably made his career. But whatever the merits of the film itself, whose cast includes a roll call of Hollywood grandees from Natalie Portman to Susan Sarandon and Jessica Chastain, expect critical and popular response to remain as polarized as ever.

Noisier in his filmmaking than his press statements, Jean-Marc Vallée started out with a grab-bag of diverse projects that ranged from his debut, the thriller List Noire (1995), to the Mario Van Peebles-scripted western Los Locos (1997). But with his 2005 breakthrough, C.R.A.Z.Y., a coming-of-age story packed with comic flourishes and classic-rock swoon (Pink Floyd, David Bowie), Vallée found his métier. Big in Quebec, the film remains little known elsewhere. But it was an attractive enough calling card to get Vallée hired to direct the Julian Fellowes-scripted Emily Blunt royalty romance The Young Victoria (2009). Vallée’s work on Dallas Buyers Club (2013) helped net the film six Oscar nominations, including a career-reviving win for Jared Leto. While Matthew McConaughey’s showboating and Leto’s scene-stealing turn as a (somewhat stereotypically) tragic transsexual weren’t without their critics, the result marked Vallée as a go-to director for actors looking to get noticed. Wild, Vallée’s Oscar-nominated 2014 adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir about self-destruction and self-discovery, gave Witherspoon her meatiest role in years. It also revealed Vallée’s knack for translating sensitive, truthful and emotionally punchy women’s stories.

More recently, Vallée has stuck with longer-form small-screen work like the Peyton Place-ish yuppie murder-mystery miniseries “Big Little Lies,” a hit for HBO (starring and produced by Witherspoon). Given the glowing accolades his actors give his empathic style, and the plethora of opportunities for long-arc acting in the current TV climate, it’s likely that Vallée might keep himself off the big screen for some time. His next project is a much-anticipated eight-episode adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Missouri gothic Sharp Objects for HBO, which could deliver in all the ways that David Fincher’s film of Flynn’s Gone Girl couldn’t manage.

Although yet to get his own premium-cable miniseries, Denis Villeneuve has produced one of the richest bodies of work to be found among today’s top-shelf directors. He started with a pair of mortality-focused dramas, August 32nd on Earth (1998) and Maelstrom (2000), which didn’t leave him easily categorized (the latter starts with narration from a dying fish), before moving on to Polytechnique (2009), a stark black-and-white film about the 1989 massacre of female students in Montreal by a man obsessed with his hatred of women. The following year’s Incendies was a labyrinthinely plotted, emotionally wrenching epic about the legacy of war and family secrets, the latter a recurring theme in his tightly packed work. Villenueve’s Hollywood entrée was the relatively conventional kidnapped-children thriller Prisoners (2013), marked by resonant work from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. That same year Villeneuve returned to Canada (Toronto this time) to direct Gyllenhaal in an adaptation of José Saramago’s Enemy. A trickster tale of identity crisis about a man who thinks he’s found his double (Gyllenhaal again), it baffled audiences but stood out for its uncommonly chilly modernist panache.

In the last couple of years, the ever-busier Villeneuve showed himself to be a genre pro with the knotty and taut Emily Blunt-Benicio Del Toro border thriller Sicario (2015) and a dab hand at brainy science fiction with last year’s sleeper hit Arrival, which earned eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. His ability to deliver striking performances, pristine cinematography, thoughtful drama and unsettling tension in big-budget films marks Villeneuve as not just a smart pick for the hungrily anticipated Blade Runner sequel due out this fall but one of the brightest prospects Hollywood studios have on their roster of A-list filmmakers.

If all this Canadian talent is indeed the result of a conspiracy, then moviegoers should hope that nobody ever gets to the bottom of it.