Turn and Face the Strange: Jean–Marc Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y.
By Maurie Alioff
(December 2006 – Montréal, QC) C.R.A.Z.Y. works like a pop song that quickly seduces you into its melody and rhythms. Like a great pop song, Jean–Marc Vallée’s movie is easy to access; it stirs up smiles and tears, and then leaves you wanting more when it hits the last beat. In fact, some of the best scenes in the picture are driven by music that casts a spell on Vallée’s dazed–and–confused protagonist, Zachary Beaulieu. For Zac, and Vallée himself, classic rock numbers like Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” are mantras that guide young dudes through their lives. A few days after picking up his Best Canadian Feature Award at TIFF, Vallée’s blue eyes lifted skyward when he told me, “The rock songs I picked for Zac are like prayers. ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’— when it starts with the organ, and the synthesizer and before the guitar comes in—sounds like divine intervention is coming soon.”
A movie that Vallée dreamed about and refined for 10 years with his writing collaborator, François Boulay, C.R.A.Z.Y. evokes a yearning for transformation in the shadow of despair—a film that gives equal weight to the characters’ longings and the brutal reality that crushes their dreams. Triggered by Boulay’s moving stories about his troubled childhood and adolescence between the 1960s and 1980s, C.R.A.Z.Y. sees myth and romance amid the banality of ordinary working people’s lives. Among other meanings, the title refers to a family of five brothers: Christian (Maxime Tremblay), Raymond (Pierre–Luc Brilliant), Antoine (Alex Gravel), Zachary (Marc–André Grondin, pictured above) and Yvan (Félix Antoine Despatie).
Born on Christmas day, Zac is marked as the odd brother out. The movie’s opening, which portrays his nativity in a rush of hectic, cartoonish images, has grown–up Zac telling us, “As far as I can remember, I’ve always hated Christmas,” a line that Vallée points out echoes Ray Liotta’s in Goodfellas: “As far as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” In a movie that shares numerous aural, visual and thematic patterns with Scorsese’s 1970s–era wiseguy epic, Zac’s opening comment sets a tone. C.R.A.Z.Y. will be bold, ironic and irreverent, even as it honours the spirit. Zac resents having his birthday in the shadow of God’s, but he also follows in His footsteps, most notably by suffering for the inescapable fact of his true self and following it into a desert of doubt and pain.
As a child and an adolescent, the hyper–sensitive, asthmatic Zac is aware that he is a boy apart, and his difference is why he takes a lot of abuse from condescendingly brainy Christian, dorky jock Antoine and bad boy Raymond. As for the melancholy hero’s parents, his mother Laurianne (Danielle Proulx) embraces the accident of his birth date as a sign that he is blessed with special gifts. He loves her as much as she does him, and he also silently idolizes his really cool dad, Gervais (Michel Côté). When the boy gets older, his most perfect memory—in a movie rich with sense–memory details—involves riding in his father’s car, the wind at his face, his dad wearing shades and dangling a cigarette from his lips as they zoom toward Le Roi des Frites for a big serving of fries. Then one day, paradise is lost. Gervais, already upset that Zac prefers baby carriages to table–top hockey games, discovers his son acting all motherly with baby Yvan, dolled up in Laurianne’s clothes and pearls.
In one of many striking transitions that Vallée says were “95 per cent in the writing; this film is what I put down on paper,” the movie cuts from little boy Zac floating underwater—tormented by his bed wetting, other boys and the terror of being what Gervais condemns as a “fifi”—to teenage Zac kick boxing across the frame. In the cut, Zac turns into a lean 15–year–old whose bedroom has become a sanctuary where he can imitate Bruce Lee, paint his face like Bowie and surf the emotions in the music of Pink Floyd.
C.R.A.Z.Y. spotlights the generation that was 15 when Bowie was such an eerie chameleon. Vallée says that despite loving Bowie’s sound, he was “a little bit scared of him” and his father wanted to know, “Who is this faggot?” Aladdin Sane (released in 1973) is a historical marker for Vallée’s movie; its guiding spirit, an invisible character. Zac does not aspire toward being a Beatle, a Stone or Johnny Rotten, although there’s a little Sid Vicious in the personae he nervously experiments with; he is a Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars kind of guy. “I turned myself to face me,” Zac, the adult, is telling us about the time he couldn’t accept the ch–ch–ch–changes he saw in the bedroom mirror.
For the rest of the picture, Zac clashes with himself, his bitterly disappointed father and Raymond, his seething doper brother. But this is not a movie about a hip dreamer boy growing up in a suburban bungalow full of Muggles. Raymond himself is a fantasist, acting out with charismatic flair his idea of a tragic biker rebel. Meanwhile, in Laurianne’s world (one where she irons toast to make it flat), Zac has the power to heal people’s wounds by just thinking about them, a conviction in grace that Vallée plays as both ridiculous and inspirational.
And while Gervais takes care of daily business, he also fabulates a world fuelled by musical preferences like the Charles Aznavour numbers he sings at parties and on the road to Le Roi des Frits. Above all, Gervais venerates the Willie Nelson heartbreaker “Crazy,” and his copy of Patsy Cline’s heartfelt version about the sad hopelessness of love provides the film with a symbol, a running gag and a dramatic motif that all pay off in the movie’s finale. Gervais is no stereotypical, authoritarian dad, except, unfortunately, in one area. No son of his is gonna put on makeup and flounce around on platform shoes.
In Zac’s hallucinations and reveries, especially the one where he ascends to the ceiling of a cathedral as the priest, the choir and the congregation joyfully belt out “Sympathy for the Devil,” his imagination is completely unlike the way the other members of his family express their longing for completion. This nuance, among others, distinguishes C.R.A.Z.Y. from standard alienated teen dramas and gives the film emotional power. The movie has earned $6 million in Quebec alone, and been sold to 50 countries worldwide, partly because its grounded view of family avoids both sentimentality and facile negativity. For Vallée, familial love is not all hugs and kisses; it co–habits with hostility and even violence. The film moves people because it portrays both the fragility of love and its ability to endure.
C.R.A.Z.Y. is also not a simple minded coming–out tale, promoting sexual diversity. When Zac gets infatuated by a guy he shotguns a joint with, he’s on a car seat, pressed up against his sexy cousin Brigitte. And although Zach’s relationship with his somewhat boyish girlfriend Michelle (Natacha Thompson) is ambiguous, when she gives him a birthday blowjob, he lets go. Emphasizing Zac’s apparent bisexuality, Vallée gives little screen time to same–sex yearnings. The character’s androgynous sexuality plays more like a sign of his individuality and his loneliness, like the lock of grey hair on the back of his head. (Vallée has one too.) Zac is a long way from the unashamedly gay transvestite hero of Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto.
The more Zac slips into his Spiders from Mars persona, the more he judges himself, condemns himself and reacts to self–hatred by erupting in anger or hiding behind cynicism. In one scene, he attacks the fag within by viciously beating up a lonely boy who’s attracted to him. In another, he sprays Raymond with wine and watches with cool amusement as the family erupts into chaos. Of course, Zac also falls in love with the strangeness he sees in the bedroom mirror. The tension between hating yourself and a narcissistic attraction to the emerging creature spreading colourful wings is at the heart of the picture. Zac must face the strange and either be destroyed or reborn by it.
Vallée’s intelligence and inventiveness, his ability to entice his audience without insulting it, might explain C.R.A.Z.Y.’s success (it competes for this year’s best foreign film Oscar®), but even with all this directorial talent, the project would have collapsed if he hadn’t found a lead actor who could give body and soul to Zac’s moods and identities, his transformation from secretive teenage kid to young man taking his chances in the world. Vallée first directed Grondin in Les Fleurs magiques, which, like C.R.A.Z.Y., portrays a tense father/son relationship. The short was released in 1995, the same year as Vallée’s feature debut, Liste noire, his critically and commercially successful thriller about a blackmailing call girl and her list of kinky clients.
Pals with nine–year–old Grondin’s parents, Vallée continued to see the young actor after the shoot, particularly for annual dinners to celebrate their closely aligned birthdays. Then after losing touch with Grondin for a while, Vallée called him in to read for C.R.A.Z.Y.. The kid had changed a lot. “As soon as he opened the door,” Vallée remembers, “I saw this look. He was so sexy, and he was so wild. He was Zac.” Vallée prayed that the Grondin’s childhood talent hadn’t evaporated. Fortunately, after a couple of readings, Grondin’s skills jumped into focus. A believer in less–is–more acting, who holds back on crying scenes and shoots the backs of characters in emotional moments, Vallée wanted to let “the storytelling and the camera do a lot. I cast people who were close to the characters, and I was sure of what I wanted. Marc–André was exactly it. He was able to do nothing,” but he also “played violence, he played an orgasm. He was scary. He was pissed. He had to do almost everything in this film.”
A lean, excitable 42–year–old, with children of his own, Vallée doesn’t talk abstractions or political polemics. C.R.A.Z.Y. captures the rebellious spirit of 1970’s Quebec, but it never refers explicitly to historical turning points like the October Crisis or the election of the Parti Québécois. Like Hitchcock, Vallée would rather describe, in loving detail, how he calculated a music cue or planned a key sequence. In the third act’s most crucial camera setup, a character appears in the foreground looking rapturously happy, while another stands in the background, out of focus, listening on the phone to tragic news. Rather than hammer on the dramatic point with a big closeup of a stricken face, the two–shot emphasizes the character who is out of the emotional loop. “He’s there smiling and thinking about the past,” Vallée says, plugging into the moment once again. “He doesn’t understand, and we’re like ‘Oh my God, when is he going to learn, and what is he going to do?’”
C.R.A.Z.Y. spills over with tricky camera moves, artfully stylized moments, off–kilter angles and extreme closeups like a pair of eroticized lips that fill the screen. But as much as Vallée delights in playing with the medium, he’s no post–MTV technician. He loves instantly recognizable directors like Scorsese, who “uses the medium to punctuate and create style and energy,” but he also venerates the invisible filmmakers who “stay humble, and you don’t really recognize them.” For C.R.A.Z.Y., he strove to mesh the two ways of making movies. “I tried to let the story be the star. I had to be careful not to betray the emotion that was already in the script. I had to be humble and make a Clint Eastwood out of myself.”
To give the movie its spontaneous air, Vallée and his director of photography, the venerated Pierre Mignot, worked what he calls “a second–camera look. Camera ‘A’ is always perfect. The second camera’s angles are awkward, and you don’t really see the actors; they’re in profile or background. But when you’re in the editing room, you realize this makes the audience want to know more and participate in the storytelling. You’re not in their faces, giving everything away.”
Vallée brought in Mignot for C.R.A.Z.Y. because his lensing on dozens of renowned Quebec films (including Anne Trister, Nô and Ma vie en cinémascope)—not to mention several Robert Altman pictures such as Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean—is the work of “a storyteller with an experienced, classical approach. I didn’t want somebody who was going to try to be clever over the content. I wanted the cinematography to look real and beautiful. Pierre is an artist, a painter who knows the light so well. I might have lost time on the set with a young guy, trying to do fancy stuff.”
After the 1995 success of Liste noire, Jean–Marc Vallée’s feature–film career lost its traction. He directed Los Locos, an eccentric western with Mario Van Peebles that got lost in the shuffle. He also filmed a television mini-series and commercials. A big turning point was getting burnt on an American female–revenge drama called Loser Love. “After that I said, ‘Well, fuck, I’m tired of doing other people’s films.’” In a moment of do–or–die inspiration, Vallée decided to drop everything for a year, refuse all gigs and focused on writing a project that had been simmering for a long time. He encouraged his friend François Boulay to write down stories about his younger self and his alienation from his brothers. When Vallée read the first drafts, with the idea the two would collaborate on a screenplay, “I was laughing, I was moved, I was shocked, I was surprised.”
Once the pressure for a breakthrough was on, he told Boulay that he wanted to speed up the process, and “put some fantasy, magic and mystical stuff” into the script. Thankfully, his friend had the “humility to let me take over his memories.” Like the protagonist of C.R.A.Z.Y., the movie’s director was ready for a transformation. “I wasn’t satisfied with my previous films. I was learning my job, but now for once in my life I wanted to make a film that I would love to make and to watch as an audience. Some films make me say ‘thank God.’ They are so good, they give me a feeling of power. I want to press on the accelerator and do something with my life. They make me see life as it should always be—beautiful.”
A film professor of mine told me that he had seen coming–of–age stories like C.R.A.Z.Y. before, and it hadn’t taught him anything new. My reaction to him was: “So what?” Absolute originality is a rare and beautiful thing, but otherwise what counts is the inventiveness, passion and conviction in a film like C.R.A.Z.Y., the most evocative Québecois family story since Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Léolo.
Also see: A trailer and the cast and crew of C.R.A.Z.Y.
This article, reproduced with permission of the author, was originally published in Issue 52 of Take One Magazine. Northernstars acquired the digital archives of Take One in 2007.