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Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée attends the premiere of the HBO television miniseries "Sharp Objects" in Los Angeles on June 26, 2018.CHRIS DELMAS/AFP/Getty Images

Jean-Marc Vallée was not a filmmaker especially fond of discussing his life as a filmmaker.

Over the course of the past decade and a half, really ever since the Quebecois director started to make strides in Hollywood, I had the opportunity to talk with him a half dozen times or so. I’m fairly certain that he only warmed up to me – warmed up to, really, the very idea of talking about his work – by the time he hit the HBO jackpot, first with 2017′s Big Little Lies, then with 2018′s Sharp Objects.

“It’s part of the job and the process, but it’s not my favourite part, promoting the thing,” Mr. Vallée said in 2016, while preparing for the release of his Jake Gyllenhaal drama Demolition. “I’m a writer and director, and I like to do that, but for some reason it’s become part of the industry and part of the job to go, ‘All right, let’s talk about it!’ I think we give too much importance to artists talking about the art, and the film, and the books, and the plays, and the music. It’s done, the material is there. But we talk about it, because it’s part of the game.”

It was a game that Mr. Vallée, eventually, came to play exceedingly well. But now, with the shocking news this weekend of the Canadian director’s sudden death at just 58 at his cabin outside Quebec City (no cause has been announced), the only thing that we will have to talk about is the material that Mr. Vallée has left us with – even though it is entirely conceivable that the man’s best work, decades of it, was yet to come.

Truthfully, Mr. Vallée didn’t have to say much during interviews – he did all the talking that he needed to do on-screen. Café de Flore, The Young Victoria, Dallas Buyers Club, Wild, Demolition, his twin HBO home runs and, of course, his breakthrough film, 2005′s coming-of-age sensation C.R.A.Z.Y. – the filmmaker was an exceptional, once-in-a-generation talent.

He knew what challenges his performers needed. He knew which songs would ensure that a film stuck in a moviegoer’s head forever. And, perhaps most importantly of all, he knew how to structure and cut a film with the fire of a thousand beating hearts. His work was fiery, explosive and incendiary. He gave the entirety of himself over to his work, and audiences reaped the benefits of such painful intensity.

Back in 2014, Mr. Vallée was one face of a three-headed trend: Competing alongside Philippe Falardeau and Denis Villeneuve, the director was pitched (by this newspaper, and others) as one of the hot Quebecois filmmakers competing for the title of Hollywood’s favourite French-language import.

While Mr. Vallée made his name at home with such acclaimed Canadian dramas as C.R.A.Z.Y. and Café de Flore, his U.S. projects offered instant industry credibility. With 2013′s Matthew McConaughey vehicle Dallas Buyers Club, and 2014′s Wild with Reese Witherspoon, Mr. Vallée delivered a one-two punch that turned him into the star-whisperer: the man who could single-handedly revive a fading performer’s credibility. (Both McConaughey and Witherspoon earned Oscar nominations for their performances, with the former winning.)

But then Demolition, conceived as awards bait for Gyllenhaal, made a tepid debut as the opening night film for the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, and disappeared without much notice into theatres when it was finally released the following spring. Plus: The market for the star-led, decently budgeted, intense character studies that Mr. Vallée specialized in seemed to be shrinking. Which is when Mr. Vallée made the leap that so many other prestige filmmakers had taken as the major film studios, and the independents, inched away from the kind of original, adult fare that interested them: He directed a television series.

Calling Big Little Lies a mere TV series, though, seems like an undersell. The seven-episode production quickly became a zeitgeist-shaking juggernaut upon its HBO premiere. A slick and dreamy adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel, Big Little Lies was a ratings smash and quickly sparked its own cottage industry of cultural chatter, from theories about its central murder-mystery plot to its representation of motherhood to whether its marquee stars (Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and familiar Mr. Vallée collaborator Ms. Witherspoon) indicated an industry shift from the big screen to the small. The series won five Emmy Awards (including best director for Mr. Vallée, who helmed all seven hours), and spawned a second, more controversial season (with reports swirling that Mr. Vallée stepped in to rework new director Andrea Arnold’s vision).

On the surface, Sharp Objects also seemed like a facsimile of Mr. Vallée’s blueprint for Big Little Lies: the eight-episode series again aired on HBO, was another adaptation of a bestselling murder-mystery page-turner (in this case, from Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn), focused on a strong woman played by an actress accustomed to headlining major films (Amy Adams), and had Mr. Vallée directing the entire production.

But Sharp Objects was just another example of Mr. Vallée knowing his career required a swerve, and of him going out and hunting down that challenge.

Sharp Objects was scary, unknown territory for me. I wouldn’t pick this kind of material to direct if you just gave me the book. Amy Adams was the force that drove me in,” Mr. Vallée told me in 2018 of his star, whom he previously tried to collaborate with on an abandoned Janis Joplin biopic. “But I was also scared because, I was asking myself, what can I do to help her? What am I going to tell her, to help her get where she needed to be? It’s scary, but this is our job, let’s do this.”

Acting as his own editor (just as he did on Wild, Dallas Buyers Club and Café de Flore), Mr. Vallée spliced Sharp Objects with quick-burst flashbacks, and he wrung a devastating and haunting performance out of Ms. Adams, the likes of which her big-screen audiences have never seen. And he continued to boldly experiment with music, again dropping a traditional score in favour of whatever tracks his characters happen to be listening to in their cars, on their iPhones or through their home stereos. The miniseries felt, in almost every way, like Peak Vallée.

And now, shockingly, distressingly, depressingly – and barring any surprise finished productions that Mr. Vallée left in his wake – Sharp Objects will stand as the director‘s final work. I’m not sure – as a filmgoer, as a television viewer, as a supporter of the Canadian arts community – that I can quite accept that at the moment. But for Jean-Marc Vallée, for audiences in his home country and around the world, this particular game of his is now over.

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