Remembering Jean-Marc Vallée: The Wild One

There are movies that define you. Wild by Jean-Marc Vallée was one those transformative experiences for me. It was pain. It was joy. And it was therapy.

Wild is one of the few films I revisit each year, and it always inspires an ugly cry. The next Wild rewatch will be extra sobby following the news that Vallée died suddenly this week at his cabin in Quebec. A heart attack is believed to be the cause. This news seems ironic, for Vallée was an artist with a mighty heart. Few filmmakers spoke of their work so passionately, modestly, and earnestly. I only met Vallée once, during the Wild junket of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, but it will be a highlight of my work as a critic. Anyone who said that you should never meet your heroes simply met the wrong people.

 

Being Wild

Vallée was one of the best filmmakers to emerge from the Canadian scene in this or any generation. His singular vision crossed borders and held true in vastly different industries and, soon thereafter, mediums as he found arguably his biggest success in television with Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects. However, his 2014 drama Wild, my personal favourite of his films, best demonstrates what Jean-Marc Vallée brought to cinema and why his work will endure.

The early scenes of Wild see Vallée develop his new place in Hollywood by relinquishing a signature of his Canadian work. In previous films, like C.R.A.Z.Y. and Café de flore, he delighted audiences with cameo appearances à la Alfred Hitchcock. With Wild, Vallée checked his ego at the door and handed the cameo over to author Cheryl Strayed, who drove her cinematic counterpart, played by Reese Witherspoon, to the Pacific Crest Trail to begin her journey. Even if he doesn’t appear in Wild, Vallée’s signature is evident in every frame from the natural cinematography by long-time collaborator Yves-Bélanger, the down-to-earth performances by Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, and the intricate editing by Vallée and Martin Pensa. Wild radiates with a spirit and burst of life that feels like the sun hitting your face on a warm fall day.

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“…I’d rather sail away / Like a swan that’s here and gone”

Vallée was the king of the needle drop, and a single music cue could evoke a flood of associations. They still do in the ways that “Dreams” will be forever synonymous with Chungking Express for some audiences, or “Layla” with GoodFellas for others. For me, the haunting riffs of Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” in particular will forever hold a place in my heart because of their role in Wild and, ultimately, the power of Vallée’s work.

The kaleidoscopic editing, which is evident in Vallée’s hypnotic Café de flore and his Oscar winning Dallas Buyers Club, engages both the heart and the mind by playing on memory and creating associations between people, places, and the music that defines us. As Strayed overcomes her grief and finds herself on the Pacific Crest Trail fuelled by the haunting music of Simon and Garfunkel, Vallée’s vision makes the story both intimately specific and universal. It invites viewers to glue the fragments of Cheryl’s grief with the shards of their own memory bank. The glue to these shards, whenever I watch Wild, hear a related music cue, or discuss it with a friend, is the memory of how a film can save your life.

Jean-Marc Vallée with Reese Withersoon during production of Wild | Searchlight Pictures

Wild at TIFF

I remember seeing Wild at a moment where I thought my life was going nowhere. Much like Cheryl Strayed, but without the anonymous sex and hard drugs, a trip down the PCT offered an escape from the lowest of the low. It was the Fall of 2014, two years after I’d finished grad school and I felt my life was going nowhere. Unemployed, bombing interview after interview and hopping between any available gigs for some cash, I felt completely lost. Then, on a whim, I applied for accreditation to cover the Toronto International Film Festival. To my surprise, I got it, netting a freelance gig to cover the handful of documentaries for a magazine where I now sit atop the masthead today.

The few documentaries at TIFF meant that I could use the accreditation to access dramas and, more importantly, talent. So, with about $60 in my bank account and a credit card that was nearly maxed out after I booked my train, I schlepped to Toronto, crashed on my twin brother’s couch, and vowed to make the most of it.

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Jean-Marc Vallée with Laura Dern during production of Wild | Searchlight Pictures

A True Cinephile

Fortunately, my twin, a publicist in the film industry, was working the Searchlight account at the time. He was handling the film atop my wish list: Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild. Somehow, and I still can’t thank him enough, my brother got me a spot in the Wild junket. That meant the first screening of my first TIFF experience was the one that counted and my first real celebrity interview was with one of my idols. Vallée didn’t disappoint–he even pulled out his phone and started playing music to underscore his talking point about adding reverb to the music to accentuate Cheryl’s memories and let audiences walk the PCT in her boots.

Yet as the chords of “El Condor Pasa” rippled from Vallée’s tinny phone speaker and filled the room of the Royal York, the same chill that shook me in the theatre enveloped me again. Sitting there with Vallée, too naïve and inexperienced to be able to articulate to him what his film meant to me, all I can see is that I saw in that moment someone who truly knew how to connect with audiences by sharing what they loved most. It was inspiring to see the cinephile’s excitement in his eyes even though he’d ascended to a point of which few Canadian filmmakers can aspire: directing A-list Hollywood talent to Oscar wins and having one of the most anticipated films of the season, all while staying true to the path that got him there.

 

The Path Ahead

Wild completely floored me in ways that a film hadn’t, and still hasn’t to this day. Sure, the story might not be that exciting: Cheryl Strayed goes for a walk. However, something happened in the theatre that day of Wild’s press screening.

Every film is a product of the context in which one receives it, so it think it helps that I saw Wild at a moment in which I would have loved to follow in Strayed’s footsteps by hurling my metaphorical hiking boot over the side of a mountain and yelling ‘FUCK!’ at the top of my lungs. But at the heart of the film is an impassioned essay on the journeys we take each time we decide to impart a story. In sharing Strayed’s story on screen, Vallée’s film inspires a viewer to put one foot ahead of the other and walk the rocky path ahead.

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Wild also teaches viewers that people walk with us even when they’re not physically present. The film’s associative editing makes Strayed’s late mother, Bobbi (Dern), an ever-present pillar of strength as memories and favourite songs motivate Cheryl in her journey. As the final cues of “El Condor Pasa” bring Wild to its emotional close, Cheryl finds strength in knowing that her mother now walks forever with her. Like Bobbi, Vallée is gone too soon, but his deeply humanistic work should inspire generations of cinephiles to find their best selves.

 



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