Vanessa Paradis stars in this extraordinary tale of star-crossed loves in two worlds united by a song.
There’s a question you need to ask yourself before you think about going to see Café de Flore. Do you believe in soulmates who are meant to be together for life (and perhaps even beyond), and do you think the idea of them finding each other is an appealing subject for a movie? Well then ladies, this is a film for you.
Seriously though, if that doesn’t sound like a terribly thrilling prospect, then there’s another angle that might be closer the mark for most people and help me convince you that Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée’s latest extraordinary feature is well worth seeing. Do you like music? Are you capable of getting lost in a song that seems to forge some kind of mystical connection with your soul? Can a song speak to you personally in a way that nothing else does, getting to the heart of inexpressible feelings and yearnings, help you though those difficult times, contributing to form a soundtrack to your life? Well then, everyone, Café de Flore is a film for you, the kind of film that not only explores just such a concept, but it has the right kind of musical and visual language to enter into the music itself and make that same kind of connection with its audience.
You’re still initially going to need to make a leap of faith however, because Jean-Marc Vallée doesn’t make things easy for the viewer. Based around two love stories – one in present-day Canadian French-speaking Montreal, the other in Paris around 1969 – the difficulty comes not necessarily in either of the two stories themselves, but in how they connect. In the Paris ‘69 section, the love is between a mother Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) and her young son Laurent (Marin Gerrier), a disabled child with Down syndrome. Unsupported by the child’s father, Jacqueline raises the young boy alone, has him educated in a school for normal children and is determined to beat the statistics regarding the quality of life and short lifespan that Laurent can expect. There’s grit and determination in Vanessa Paradis’ performance and a lot of humour as well as poignancy in the situation as Laurent starts to express his own personality and growth in unexpected ways, finding a sense of wonder of a song called ‘Café de Flore‘ on a compilation LP of easy-listening jazz standards, and a new friendship with a young girl in his class also with Down syndrome.
In the present-day story, thirtysomething Antoine (Kevin Parent) has a very different lifestyle and expectations. He has a beautiful girlfriend, two wonderful children, an impressive home and a successful career as an international DJ. He lives in music. It’s been a part of his life for as long as he can remember, the music creating a space for him to live in and explore himself at different stages of his life, and it’s been a shared experience with Carole (Hélène Florent) who has been destined to be his soulmate from childhood. Never any question, never any doubt. Why then when he meets Rose (Evelyne Brochu) – at a party, and not to any great life-changing piece of music, but to a simple downtempo lounge piece called ‘Café de Flore‘ – does Antoine feel like he has really found his another soulmate? His true soulmate, the one he simply has to be with, even if it means potentially destroying the lives of his family and all the people who mean so much to him. This isn’t how it should be. Surely there can only be one soulmate?
Between the two stories the film covers the idea of love in various guises, the good feelings it engenders as well as the problems it can also cause. It does this marvellously, making both stories equally compelling through the rhythm of its editing and through its choice of soundtrack music. Pink Floyd, Sigur Rós and The Cure feature prominently and extensively, but they are not there simply there to provide a musical accompaniment to the film, they are an intrinsic part of the film. Jean-Marc Vallée’s method of intercutting the two stories is like a DJ on a mixing deck, working to the rhythms of the music helps keep a consistency of flow in the potentially confusing narrative strands, or at least finding a consistent connection in the common emotional points of the two stories. The smart editing, jump-cut repetition of imagery can be a little bit overwrought, like early Darren Aronofsky, but Vallée is aiming more than just for stylistic trickery and finds something more akin to Marco Bellocchio’s employment of musical reverie to reach a transcendental ecstatic truth in Good Morning Night (which also notably uses Pink Floyd) and in Vincere.
If you sit back and go with the flow that is presented, then Café de Flore is a dazzling display of filmmaking technique aligned to real and meaningful emotions. Depending on your responsiveness to the material, there could however be some difficulty in accepting the portentous mystical Alejandro González Iñárritu -like sense of life being interconnected at levels we can’t even imagine (stick around for that final photographic close-up just before the end credits), but the choice of which angle to approach the central concept – the soulmates angle or the music angle – could make acceptance a little bit easier. Café de Flore has all the hallmarks then of a cult classic in the making, or it could be a load of old twaddle, depending on your receptiveness. Sometimes however that’s the kind of risk you have to take to make a great film, and Café de Flore could just be one.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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