Beaux rêves: Remembering Jean-Marc Vallée
Aisling Chin-Yee reflects on her relationship with the late Canadian filmmaker
Award-winning filmmaker Aisling Chin-Yee was a close personal friend and former romantic partner to Jean-Marc Vallée. This essay has been shortened for publication. You can read the original version of the piece here.
I have been stranded on this island for the past two weeks since you died. Each morning I wake up, wondering if you are done with death yet, ready to come back and tell me about your experience, what you saw and learned. You always have stories. You always come home to Montreal.
But, you haven't come back. Montreal has an unreal quality without you. Like it exists only in my mind, a rock being hit by waves of despair.
My mind slips and slides around memories. Each thought dislodged like a stone in a current.
Like, when I told you my favourite song was Wish You Were Here, by Pink Floyd. You said yours was Shine on You Crazy Diamond, from the same album. "Serendipity!" you had exclaimed.
I wish you were here.
The words now sound like a desperate plea. How they echo around this empty room.
I decide to FaceTime someone. "Call a friend" was recommended as a coping tool for grief. I pull up my phone and see the last call is with him, on December 25th, 2021. I look at the time stamp. Just hours before it happened.
My thought cuts to our last conversation. A grainy low-angle image of his face, wrapped in a Varvatos scarf, his iPhone propped up in the cupholder as he drives from Montreal to Quebec City. I was in Nova Scotia, about to sit down with my family for Christmas dinner. "Call me when you arrive at the chalet. Drive safe," I said.
I remember not hearing from him that evening, which was odd. I remember texting him before I went to bed early that night, "Hope you arrived safely! Call me tomorrow. Going to sleep now. Beaux rêves."
I remember the phone call from your son the following day.
These are the unbearable moments.
This is happening a lot. My life mimics the same heartache and pain, wonder, and rhythm that Jean-Marc captured in his work. It feels like I am back in the editing room with him, as he masterfully creates the intangible sense of sorrow, nostalgia, and love through perspective, music, and memory.
I met Jean-Marc in Ottawa, at the Governor General's Awards for Visual and Media Arts in May of 2015. With six other artists, he was being honoured for his achievements and contributions to Canadian culture. The celebration included short films about each honoree made by an up-and-coming filmmaker. I was one of those filmmakers and stood at the opening reception with my fellow hires, trying to find something to eat before the ceremony started.
Tall, handsome, with strong, broad shoulders, Jean-Marc stood by the bar, hands in pockets, flanked by his two sons, Alex and Émile. The three of them, eye to eye in height, decked in matching black suits. A striking sight, in this room filled with retired parliamentarians, and Canada's most cherished artists and socialites over 65.
He turned as we approached as if he sensed the presence of his fellow cineastes. A boyish smile, and those big eyes, the colour of the ocean in the morning, locked with mine. I was hit with a bolt of awareness, a flash of connection. One that would re-occur, over the next seven years, never fading, only deepening.
When Jean-Marc looked at you, you felt like the only person in the room. He had an intensity, windowed by his expressive and curious eyes, revealing his restless soul. He was always observing, an empathic explorer, searching to understand the curious behaviours of humans.
In large gatherings, he was charming and playful, but enigmatic. He always had a glint of a private joke in his eyes, about the absurdity of these types of social events. The repeat conversations. The moments of humble gratitude when someone would thank him for making C.R.A.Z.Y. or the comic moments when someone would congratulate him on the new Blade Runner. Jean-Marc and Denis Villeneuve were sometimes mistaken for each other, both being French Canadian directors.
The evening progressed as these types of evenings do with speeches, tributes, and our films.
Drinks and dancing into the night, it was a surprisingly lively event for one hosted by bureaucrats to the Queen. By mid-evening, Jean-Marc and I were tucked away in plain sight, deep in conversation, about life, friendships, storytelling, the past, present, and future. He wanted to know about my work as a filmmaker, which at that time was mostly as an independent producer in Montreal. We talked about how hard it was to make films on a meagre budget, and the blood, sweat, tears, and penniless commitment that goes into making indie Canadian dramas. An independent filmmaker in his bones, he empathized with my struggle.
What I omitted from that conversation was that I had reached the end of my rope with independent producing. I was planning to go to law school that following September. When someone stopped by our cozy conversation on his way out and casually congratulated the next phase of my life, Jean-Marc raised a figurative eyebrow. I say this because I cannot picture Jean-Marc raising one eyebrow in this fashion. What he did do was look at me, and again, I felt that bolt of lightning of someone trying to see inside my soul.
"I thought you were a filmmaker?"
I replied, yes, I am, but that I think I would be a good lawyer as well, that this could be a smart move for my future. I could feel myself reddening, exposed, that I was standing with one of Canada's most beloved filmmakers, stating that I didn't think I could hack it anymore.
He nodded with a cheeky smile. Later I'd learn this was the precursor to an unadulterated, and honest opinion. "That's interesting… it's usually the lawyers who want to become filmmakers, not the filmmakers who want to become lawyers."
I spluttered some reasons on why I think I can do both, but that I wanted to make a change in the world, that I hadn't felt creatively fulfilled, or valued in my work as a producer. What I needed was a change and to find financial freedom. He nodded again, and whispered in my ear, "You can have all those dreams as a filmmaker, you know. Just do it your own way."
This was the beginning of our relationship and the end of my foray into law school. From the outset, Jean-Marc believed in my ability and creative spirit even more than I had the capacity to dare. It was his dogged encouragement, his sometimes unreachable standards, that pushed me to stand in my worth as a writer, director, and even editor.
I leaf through the photos and cards you have written to me over the years, looking for clues that you are still here. That this is an elaborate puzzle, a playful prank, to teach me to recognize the beauty of the moment. To appreciate your presence.
Among the little notes written on your hotel notepads, the birthday, and Christmas cards, I find a card you wrote to me the day before I started production on my first feature, The Rest of Us. "Keep trusting your instinct and believing in your tremendous talent. Je crois en toi, et je t'aime."
I have to remind myself that death is something that happened to you. Not something directed at me. But, if this were a film, you'd tell me, "We see his death through her perspective. Through her thoughts, and her longing, and loneliness."
Then you'd tell me that I know what I am doing and that I need to let the characters' feelings guide me. We would have made dinner, and watched BBC Earth.
As a man and a filmmaker, Jean-Marc had a deep understanding of the power and magnitude of his vulnerability. He had this ability to hold this delicate part of himself up to his eye and examine it. Holding his soul like a wild bird before letting it take flight into his storytelling.
It is exhausting to extend your heart out for public scrutiny and call it "work." Yet Jean-Marc did not know any other way of existing and interacting with the world. He was attracted to the questions of humanity, and not the answers. He was attracted to the particles of beauty in darkness. Tiny atoms of light and hope that float in the universe trying to find one another. That the beauty in the stories we tell is to embrace that painful quest for wholeness, and the absurdity and joy of being alive.
"What we are trying to do is so fucking hard, but it's also so fucking beautiful," he would say.
I learned about the delight and the grit of filmmaking from Jean-Marc. He taught me how to mine my heart for truth, and how to stay open and receptive, but also provocative and disruptive. This made us both critical observers, sometimes aiming scrutiny at one another.
Jean-Marc knew nothing would be handed to him, or to someone like me, for free. We are both from modest Canadian backgrounds, with no familial connection to Hollywood or the entertainment industry. To survive and thrive as a storyteller requires stamina, resilience, and an immense amount of discipline. That so much of the job is internal, that this work was lonely, often dark, often hopeful, and a lifelong journey. You need to be equal parts warrior and poet.
Jean-Marc was my biggest supporter and my toughest critic.
He'd comb over every word in my scripts, every edit in my cuts, challenging me to explain why.
If I added any "clever" or self-indulgent ideas, he would not hesitate to call them out. "I can spot the director. You're making this moment about you. Stop showing off. It's not serving the story."
Don't. Get. Spotted. These words were scripture in the edit suite.
Big and bold was easy. Clear but subtle took work.
He had a simplicity to his approach that he loved to share. Creating reality meant breaking down the fabrication of filmmaking. To make it personal. An intimate point of view, making sure the characters are our entry point into the worlds and relationships of the story. Each character was a piece of him, and he gave each performance the same attention he would give everything in his life.
Alert and hyper-aware, I would liken him to a fox. A restless and curious seeker, he would have to make the conscious decision to shut off his perception. I would remark that his real superpower as a director was his ability to quickly fall into a deep, regenerative sleep. He needed neither sleeping aids nor coffee to end or start his day. He greeted each day with deep breaths, a silver needles white tea, and as often as possible, a salutation to the sea.
Jean-Marc was my compass and my life jacket.
He had little tolerance for those who offered only gossip and negativity, had inflated egos, or attempted to babysit him. As his personal experience evolved, so did his characters and his filmmaking. Nothing was static, and nothing was ever taken for granted.
He knew he was afforded creative freedom as much as he could offer back magic on a platter. He earned the trust and his right to shoot his way. Intimate sets that he could shoot handheld and 360 degrees, without dollys, tracks, or cranes, using available light. He wanted the music to belong to the characters, that they would DJ the soundtrack, let their perspectives guide the edit, and keep the storytelling as pure as possible.
Jean-Marc did not suffer fools, frauds, or even well-intentioned morons, especially if they talked too much. You would have his respect, but you had to earn his trust, and he would encourage me to approach others similarly. I would sometimes roll my eyes that my experience as a female filmmaker, and a woman of colour, who is still trying to make a name as a director, is very different from his experience. That I would have to compromise in ways that he would not be asked to do, especially at his stage in his career.
I was right. But more often, so was Jean-Marc. His interpretation was that we are both directors and we should be treated the same. He was not naive, but he wanted me to remember that I am valuable. It was a reminder that I needed to not lose myself in others' projections onto me.
Perhaps Jean-Marc was worried that I would repeat some of his own early experiences. The times that he felt his artist's voice was being drowned out by a bully or too much machismo. He would say to me often, perhaps as a reminder to himself, that you needed to block the cynicism of the industry for long-term survival and not fall for shiny distractions. "You need to stand up for your vision, and make what you believe in."
Years of being an outsider meant he had a great perspective of what it meant to step in and out of the spotlight. You need to protect yourself from the noise. You need to keep your head down. Keep your aspirations and rewards personal. Celebrate if your truth touches someone.
"This is your voice. There is a language you need to find to express it," he would press upon me when we were in the cutting room for my film, The Rest of Us. "Try something, make it the perfect version, and then try it again. Surprise yourself," he would say about editing a scene.
"I will be here forever, and I will never finish this movie," I would cut back sometimes. Then I would get that look, the one that stopped you in your tracks. And his eyes would say to me, "You need to do what you need to do."
He always spoke of language. He despised the word "style" and was annoyed when critics referred to his work with this word. It is not about style. It's about language. It's about vocabulary. He of course did not mean actual verbal language. He found ways to express the nuances and soft shadows of feeling that cannot be written or spoken with words. To portray the intangible qualities of memory, craving, and sensuality through image, sound, and music. The feelings, the family ties that bind us together. The simple and the mundane, to the heartbreakingly tragic.
"Trust the process," he always said when I felt frustrated or down. The work speaks for itself, and the goal and the reward are to connect to others through your work.
From the post-production on Demolition, I would continue to have a unique window to the making of Big Little Lies, Sharp Objects, and the research and writing of John & Yoko. I had a front-row seat to Jean-Marc's process. I got to follow him like a shadow, one organism on set: Jean-Marc behind Yves Bélanger, and me tucked behind Jean-Marc. I was an active observer who got to join his dance with the camera and the actors as they created magic.
I had the gift of watching him for hundreds of hours in the cutting room. The safe place where his imagination and the endless possibilities of his talent shone late into the night. This is where he was confronted with a past version of himself, the director on set, making decisions, reacting in real time, since he rarely cut between takes. Sipping tea, his fingers flying across his Avid keyboard like a concert pianist, and his hand tapping the table like a metronome, as he counted out the beats of a track, remixing and DJing shots and sounds with the rhythmic ease of a music producer.
And most recently, I was witness to his solitary focus and quiet whispering while writing, never moving from his kitchen table or desk even as I pirouetted with procrastination on my own writing.
"It's all screenwriting, up until the very end," he would say, referring to editing as "screenwriting." Jean-Marc would show me how he used invisible editing tricks, morph two, sometimes three shots together, add a reflection of a character in a window, change the foregrounds so that every cut was from someone's perspective.
"The world is most beautiful in an imperfect image. We aren't lit properly in real life. We sit in shadows, underexposed," he would say about his images.
In reality, Jean-Marc was always moving lights, rearranging coasters, his notes that he kept on his cutting room table. He was a master of atmosphere, often suggesting music to his favourite restaurants. And, with the lighting, it had to be soft, low, ideally a setting sun or firelight. And, if it is not these, then tungsten, warm, and indirect. No harsh bulbs, no screaming halogens, and definitely no pot lighting. The light needed to bounce and reflect.
A lamp that I don't often use, because of its brightness, happens to be on.
It flickers. On, then off.
"Are you adjusting my lighting?" I ask you. I was drawn back to every movie with ghosts and grief and one of your favourite films, Interstellar.
Are you here?
Still unable to bear the idea of you gone, I continue. Why didn't you come to Nova Scotia for Christmas as I had suggested to you? I should have been there with you. I would have stopped you from leaving. It's time to come back. That I can't actually do this without you, and that we had promised to always be there for each other. We had said this the very night before I left. You always keep your promises to me.
The dog looks up. Does he see you, or just me, talking to the light reflecting on the wall?
It is too quiet. You do not offer your side of the conversation. I am almost angry at you for leaving me exposed, without the comfort of your voice.
I have not sat in silence since he's been gone. I am less alone when the air is filled with music. For just a second, I imagine that Jean-Marc is sitting in the next room, when Baby Huey, David Bowie, Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones, Robert Charlebois, Villagers, Brittney Howard, and so many more must keep me company.
Jean-Marc had a bluesman's heart. In another dimension, he was that singer with a guitar on a smoky stage. In this world, his way of bending guitar strings, finding those earthy, out-of-tune notes that vibrate with the gravitas of experience, was through cinema.
"Directors need rhythm and need to understand how to tease and anticipate, to surprise. Have a beat, a punch. We need to make love songs. And when you make them laugh, bang! Then make them cry. "
Music was Jean-Marc's heartbeat, and his pursuit was to make cinema as intimate an experience as song. Through chords and refrain, he drew his intuition, and he made his characters relate to the world in the same way. Through a hand clap, a guitar riff, the tap tap tap of a snare drum, Jean-Marc transported us through music to the place where his heart intersected with his mind. With music, he was the most romantic person in the world.
You rarely listened to one artist on repeat. But you found a stash of old CDs at the country house. Miles Davis became our soundtrack. The river flowed, the temperature had dropped well below zero, and our refuge was by the fireside with a tea. We had both finished the meetings we had for the day and were settling into the next two weeks of holidays. Whatever that looked like with Covid. We spoke of the year behind us, the monotony of the two years of the pandemic, but the calmness and wisdom that we had found in these months of reflection. We thanked each other, that we had gotten this far during these times together. That we would always remember this moment. Warm whispers by the fire, as you added logs to the flames. Miles Davis. Memories. Reflection. And anticipation for the experiences ahead of us.
"We are born from stars, isn't that amazing?" he would say, after the fifteenth time we had watched an episode of BBC's Universe. It's mind-boggling, I would reply, looking at my hands and hair, thinking of the dead stars and asteroids that could be making up my body. He loved the idea that we were these celestial beings, galaxies of our own, living these flash frame existences in the expanse of time, made from the ingredients of deep space.
You were too expansive for this Earth, Jean-Marc, and that body could not contain all your cosmic energy. You always knew you were the Universe and that you'd return to it. I wish I could have held onto you longer. But, even I always knew that that was never going to be the case.
I write these words in hopes that they will conjure him out of thin air, call him back from where he's gone. We are memory keepers and storytellers — that is our job. But, I am not prepared to tell his story. I am not ready to hold only memories.
I will never be able to say goodbye to Jean-Marc, and I will never try. I know he will be standing next to me with every film, pushing doubt out the door, and telling me to reach for the stars because they are him. I will greet him with every sunrise and sunset and see him in the inhale and the exhale of the tide. I will look for him in a crowd to share an intimate look, a personal joke, and to see his mischievous smile. I will see him in the countless filmmakers, artists, and people that he touched along his journey. He is next to me if I close my eyes, ready to hold me up against the crashing waves.
Beaux rêves, I had texted you before going to sleep that night. I hope you received it.
Beaux rêves, Jean-Marc. Je t'aime beaucoup, beaucoup.
Sweet dreams, mon beau. I will meet you in mine.