The French Connection: Québec Directors in Hollywood

You may not have noticed that your favourite movie or television show has been created by a Québécois filmmaker. Did you love the high drama and intensity of the thrillers Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015)? Then you’re a fan of Québec-born director Denis Villeneuve. What about the series Big Little Lies (2017-19) and Sharp Objects (2018)? They were both directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, born and raised in Montréal. The incredibly talented Montréal filmmaker and actor Xavier Dolan’s first English-language film The Death & Life of John F. Donovan premiered at TIFF in 2018.

In recognition of Vaughan Public Libraries marking five years of expanded French services, as well as the recent release of the highly anticipated Dune (2021), Villeneuve’s latest sci-fi blockbuster, I wanted to highlight these three Canadian filmmakers from Québec who have made their mark in Hollywood with their distinct visions, styles, and a dash of je ne sais quoi. Their earlier French-language work demonstrates their skill and talent and hints at the larger projects that were to come. Check them out at your local VPL bibliothèque!

Denis Villeneuve has become a mainstay in Hollywood with his ability to blend quality and intelligent storytelling with impactful visuals and style. After his success with the science fiction blockbusters Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Villeneuve has tackled Dune, based on the 1965 book by Frank Herbert. His earlier French-language films are just as powerful, including Incendies (2010), an absolute tour de force that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011. I remember seeing this film at the cinéma in Montréal with my dad and being absolutely riveted by the story. It was a true movie-going experience for me, similar to how I felt watching The Hurt Locker (2008). I won’t say anything about the incredible plot, just that you need to watch this film.

Jean-Marc Vallée is another well-respected Québécois director who has found success in Hollywood. He first made a splash in Tinseltown with the sweeping historical drama The Young Victoria (2009), starring Emily Blunt. He since went on to create Wild (2014) with Reese Witherspoon and the critically acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club (2013), for which Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both won Academy Awards under Vallée’s direction.

Vallée’s earlier French-language work was well-received by critics, especially his short films. But the 2005 feature film C.R.A.Z.Y. is arguably Vallée’s chef-d’oeuvre in French. This coming-of-age drama showcases excellent acting and features a killer soundtrack that includes songs from Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, The Rolling Stones, and David Bowie. Don’t be concerned if you ever get a sense of déjà vu watching Vallée’s films. The dream-like sequences that depict characters in a feverish, kaleidoscopic way in Dallas Buyers Club were previously on display during important segments in C.R.A.Z.Y.

Often referred to as Canada’s enfant terrible of cinema, Xavier Dolan has undoubtedly made his mark on filmmaking with a bold and uncompromising approach. Deftly working within different genres, while always maintaining a dark and emotional undercurrent, his honest depictions of complex relationships have often been polarizing for critics and viewers alike. At 32 years old, he has directed eight feature films and has won several major awards and accolades for his work, including the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival.

I have always found Dolan’s work to be moving and interesting. He sympathizes with his characters yet is not afraid to show their coarseness and faults. In particular through his use of costumes (he is often also the costume designer on his films), his empathy allows him to showcase these more negative aspects of his characters in a tender way that doesn’t smother them or downplay their importance to the characters’ overall personalities. This perceptive understanding is especially on display in Mommy (2014), arguably one of his best films.

Dolan is a versatile filmmaker who does not shy away from difficult and confusing subjects. Tom à la ferme (2013), is a dark psychological thriller with a driving plot that will leave you feeling confused, disturbed, and relieved at the same time. Dolan stars in this film as a young man from Montréal whose boyfriend has recently passed away. He visits his boyfriend’s hometown in rural Québec to attend the funeral and let’s just say that things get weird – really weird.

The importance that Dolan places on music is also evident in his films. In Juste la fin du monde (2016), there is a magnificent cut to a scene that is strong and breathtaking, without feeling abrupt or out of place. The force of the scene and its obvious use of music emulate Dolan’s way of depicting how joyful memories can suddenly interrupt the present and transport his characters, and you, the viewer, into the past and glimpses of better times tinged with nostalgia.

Each of these three talented auteurs from Québec have managed to bring their distinctive styles, honed in previous French-language works, onto a larger stage with a wider audience. They have skillfully worked within different genres, while maintaining a strong commitment to their visions and aesthetics. Their work has had a lasting impact on moviemaking and film goers. C’est fantastique!

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