by Gareth Negus
Café de Flore is 85% of a very good film, and it’s a pity that the 15% I wasn’t crazy about comes at the end. Written and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée – who previously directed C.R.A.Z.Y., which I liked a lot a few years ago, and The Young Victoria, which I couldn’t really be bothered to see – it’s a romantic tale set in 2011 Canada and 1969 France.
The 1969 section focuses on single mother Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis), struggling to bring up her young son, Laurent, who has Down’s Syndrome. She is determined to disprove the low expectations society has for her child, both in terms of life expectancy and quality of life, but this determination leads to frustration when the boy starts to develop ambitions of his own. The Montreal storyline revolves around the love life of Antoine (Kevin Parent) a club DJ on the cusp of turning 40. Antoine, the opening voice over tells us, appears to have it all – a great relationship with his partner, two children, a successful career. But it gradually becomes clear that there is a fly in the ointment, and Antoine is not sure he deserves his good fortune.
The opening half hour or so introduces the characters, but we only gradually come to understand how they are connected to each other. This is not just the case with the two time periods; the 2011 section only reveals its hand slowly. I found this rather exciting to watch. So many films set their stall out clearly in the first few minutes, allowing you to predict pretty much where the story is going. Café de Flore obliges you to pay attention and work to uncover the links between the characters. This is something of a rarity (21 Grams springs to mind as another example).
Vallée’s handling of the disparate threads is excellent. The various characters and their stories start to coalesce, through flashbacks, flashforwards and intercutting (Vallée is also the editor). The mystery of how the dual storylines are intertwined is nicely maintained, and there are repeated flashes suggesting imminent disaster, and a tragic end for at least one of the characters, to maintain suspense. The only initial link appears to be from the song that gives the film its title – it’s the favourite of both Laurent and Antoine – and a theme of obsessive love. As in C.R.A.Z.Y., the soundtrack is put together (I’m tempted to say curated) with obvious care and love. (I’m not the music geek Vallée appears to be, but for those who care, there’s a fair bit of Pink Floyd in this one.) The cast are also good, and in Marin Gerrier and Alice Dubois, who play Laurent and his Down’s friend Veronique, the film also has two of the most huggable children I’ve seen on screen in a long while.
So to start with, everything’s fine. You have a good looking, well-crafted film that aims to be a serious film about adult relationships. Where the film went fatally wrong, for me, was in the revelation of what joins the two storylines. The next paragraph will contain spoilers, so you may wish to stop reading now.
For a while, I was wondering if the 1969 scenes would turn out to be a dream or fantasy of one of the modern characters (Carole, Antoine’s first wife, is having troubling dreams which appear to echo Jacqueline and Laurent’s story). In fact, the revelation is heavily implied in the film’s tagline (‘one love, two lifetimes’) but I had missed that before seeing the film. My heart started to sink when Carole visited a medium in the hope of solving the puzzle of her recurring dreams; when the medium asserted that she and Antoine are reincarnations of characters from the 1969 segment, I was rolling my eyes in despair. I don’t mind this kind of fantasy in films, quite the reverse, but to introduce it into what had apparently been a serious drama demanded a leap I was not prepared to take. The plot twist felt as though it belonged in a much sillier film; it’s the kind of material rarely presented in such a po-faced manner outside the work of Bruce Joel Rubin.
I’m not sure what kind of resolution would have worked for me. I had theorised that that Antoine or Carole might be related to the 1969 characters in some way; I had also wondered if these sections might simply be dreams. That might not have been completely satisfying dramatically, but I would have been prepared to accept it, and respect it as the writer/director’s decision. I can’t say the same for the new age nonsense that is actually presented. While Vallée tells his story very well, it’s unfortunate that the story, however sincerely meant, is ultimately silly.
Uncle Frank blogs about films at Uncle Frank’s Film Blog