After seducing even the cinematic cynics at festivals in Toronto and Venice, getting the nod as Canada's next contender for a foreign-language Oscar nomination, and creaming the U.S. competition at the Quebec box office this summer, the buzz surrounding C.R.A.Z.Y. might just be loud enough to drive you, well, out of your mind.
After all, if it's not William Morris or Creative Artists, it's some other big Hollywood agent that's been hounding Jean-Marc Vallée to sign with them. The sudden pressure and fame could be destabilizing. But the director of the movie that beat out the latest and much-hyped offerings from David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan for top Canadian feature honours at last month's Toronto International Film Festival, is, in fact, in full control of his faculties and fully savouring the attention.
"I've met with them all," Vallée says of the agents as he sips tea in a popular restaurant in Montreal's artsy Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood. "And I've told them my next project will be way more ambitious than C.R.A.Z.Y. [which cost $7-million to make] I'm thinking $30-million to $40-million -- U.S. No one's said no."
Needless to say, it's because they can smell boffo box office a million miles away. C.R.A.Z.Y. is a stylish crowd-pleaser that makes the most of its sixties and seventies soundtrack (Patsy Cline, Rolling Stones and, most memorably, David Bowie) to transport boomers back in time, while relying on quirky camera techniques -- think Amélie -- to rivet a music-video generation with a short attention span.
It's also alternately funny -- with a hilarious husband-wife discussion about anal sex -- moving, corny, sad, uplifting, energizing and heartwarming. If the toughest critics will find fault with it -- especially with a few of the cookie-cutter supporting characters -- it's not hard to see why the L.A. agents are on Vallée's tail or why audiences have loved it. Indeed, Quebeckers are so trippé (flipped out) over the film that it has taken in almost $6-million, is second only to Star Wars: Episode III in summer box-office receipts, and continues to play on more than 20 screens a full five months after its release.
For Vallée -- who makes no secret of the fact that, with C.R.A.Z.Y., he sought to "put on a good show" -- this is payback time. And why shouldn't it be? It took 11 years to get C.R.A.Z.Y. to the screen, a sometimes exhausting odyssey that began over generous amounts of wine at an Eastern Townships summer cottage. Vallée and his then partner Chantal Cadieux sat mesmerized as their friend François Boulay told them of his troubled adolescence as the sexually confused fourth son in an all-boy surburban Montreal family. It would take a foreign pilgrimage (portrayed, literally, in the film as a walk in the desert) and a terrible family tragedy for him to achieve self-acceptance and, more important, gain the love and recognition of his traditionalist father.
Vallée, now 42, pressed Boulay, a 45-year-old TV scriptwriter, to put his story onto paper. The 300-pages of "random memories" that Boulay plopped into Vallée's mailbox several weeks later became the basis for the C.R.A.Z.Y. screenplay that the duo completed five years ago.
Vallée figured he needed $15-million to turn his script into the movie he wanted and was ready to peddle his project stateside, having hired a translator to produce an English version of the screenplay. But when he showed the script to Quebec actor Michel Côté, the latter gave him a serious sermon on the importance of making the film, in French, at home.
Vallée eventually agreed and cut his budget accordingly. Thankfully, for Canada's sake. Because although Vallée sought to make a movie with universal appeal, anyone familiar with Quebec's Quiet Revolution will also see C.R.A.Z.Y. as a chronicle of the social upheaval that unfurled in the sixties when the postwar generation threw off the shackles of Catholicism while their elders watched in horror. As a result, the setting adds to the poignancy of the central character's struggle with his sexuality.
In the film, Boulay's character is called Zachary -- a clue to the riddle that is the film's title, which is not explained until the credits roll. The name change is not the only way in which Vallée and Boulay adapted their script to please the audience. In real life, Boulay lip-synched not to Bowie but to René Simard -- very uncool. And Zach's mother's unshakable faith (she believes her son has a divine gift to heal burns and other wounds) and her recipe for ironing toast were inspired by Vallée's own mom.
C.R.A.Z.Y. is almost certainly Genie, if not Oscar, material. The performances of 21-year-old Marc-André Grondin as the teenaged Zach, Côté as his father, and Vallée's own son Émile, who plays Zach as a young child, are all prize-worthy. Little wonder that distribution rights have been sold in 50 countries. The jury is out, however, as to whether the film will find an audience in English-speaking North America, a market in which Québécois movies with subtitles have traditionally fallen flat.
This year's multiple-Genie winner Mémoires Affectives ( Looking for Alexander), for instance, drew only a handful of curious cinephiles when it was released in Toronto. And, despite all the buzz surrounding it, even Denys Arcand's Barbarian Invasions took in barely $500,000 in English Canada on its way to Oscar glory, compared to $6.6-million in Quebec and $40-million in France.
"Launching a French-language Quebec film in Toronto is not the easiest thing in the world," concedes Yves Dion, president of TVA Films, C.R.A.Z.Y.'s Canadian distributor. "But I have a good feeling about this one."
C.R.A.Z.Y will open in Toronto on Friday on only two screens, and on one screen in Vancouver on Nov. 2, a modest launch that Dion hopes will lay the groundwork for a more extensive rollout across Canada around Christmas.
The film's producer, Montreal-based Cirrus Communications, is still negotiating to sell the U.S. rights to C.R.A.Z.Y. Several distributors are in the running, according to Cirrus's Pierre Even, but it could take several weeks to hammer out a deal. There is some pressure to strike one: A U.S. release before the Oscars could make the difference between attracting the academy's attention or not.
Vallée, meanwhile, is readjusting to the limelight. He enjoyed a brief moment of glory in 1995 when his first feature, Liste Noire ( Black List), racked up nine Genie nominations. That also prompted offers from south of the border, but after directing a couple of low-budget features in New York and Los Angeles, a disillusioned Vallée came back to Quebec in 1999.
"The whole U.S. experience left me feeling unsatisfied," he says. "As a filmmaker, I didn't like always being told what to do by the producer."
If he returns to L.A. this time, Vallée says, it will be to direct the movie version of a French novel (he won't say which one) to which he has optioned the film rights. And, it goes without saying, he won't be taking orders from anyone.