Café de Flore is the new film by Jean-Marc Vallée, which offers two alternating narratives about the nature of love, set four decades apart yet intrinsically linked. Combining a choppy, hand-held aesthetic and a trendy playlist with a dewy-eyed romanticism, the film seems to want to rehabilitate love as an important theme for modern cinema.
In the 1960s, we meet Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis), who has given birth to a child with Downs syndrome, Laurent (played by Marin Gerrier). Her refusal to abandon her child has left her in semi-destitution but her love for her son does not wane. In the present day, in Montreal, Antoine (Kevin Parent), a successful DJ, has left his wife Carole (Hélène Florent) and their two teenage daughters for Rose (Evelyne Brochu), a significantly younger woman. Carole finds it exceedingly difficult to let go, unknowingly paralleling Jacqueline’s own difficulties when Laurent meets a girl at school…
Café de Flore is a film that is deeply enamoured with music and is littered with rather lyrical sequences in which the music takes precedence over dialogue and the film moves between fast and slow motion depending on the music’s tempo. At times, it feels very much like a music video and it can be a little difficult to consider the characters as little more than the ciphers that are usually seen on music channels. The film is very choppy, with Vallée rarely allowing the scenes to develop beyond their rudimentary parts and often key scenes may pass by with little fanfare, determined instead to segue into more technically orientated sequences. It is never allowed to breathe in the way of a great Woody Allen or John Cassavetes film, despite ultimately being that sort of film, concerned as it is fundamentally with love and relationships. After all, it is a somewhat philosophical work, or at least pretends to be, Vallée’s preoccupation with music often getting in the way of the big questions that the film asks, resulting in some rather facile and frustratingly preposterous answers.
Your enjoyment of Café de Flore will probably rely on a positive answer or, at the very least, a shrugging sympathy towards the positive to the following questions: Do you believe in soul mates? Do you believe in reincarnation? Are you a spiritual person? Do you believe in mysticism? How about mediums? And the tough one: Do you believe in true love? If, like me, all of your answers lean towards the negative, Café de Flore is probably not for you. The film is thoroughly unconvincing as a passionate argument for the existence of these things and when it becoming clear, in the climax, just what the complex multi-narrative storyline essentially boils down to, it can be difficult to avoid the horrible feeling that you have walked into the wrong self-help meeting.
To accentuate the positive, Café de Flore is an ambitious work that does attempt to look at some of the big questions about life and love. The film is not without its more successful moments, such as good performances all round, but particularly from Paradis and Gerrier, though their storyline does descend into the trapping of a TV movie, falling prey to the film’s destructive grand design. The rough-hewn, not entirely conventional aesthetic does have its compensations and the film can say a lot without dialogue, which has become quite a rare skill. The film is very much like some of the work of Terence Malick though, unfortunately, it is more like The Tree of Life, another film that was often intellectually stultifying whilst also being visually fascinating, than, say, Badlands or The Thin Red Line. The film is also not without its nice, even evocative, touches, such as when Carole looks at Antoine but sees the younger Antoine whom she fell in love with all those years ago. Similarly, the film is hampered by many eye-rolling moments, particularly when the Beefeater spectre makes an appearance or when the film hints at the links between the two stories, clunky moments that are irritating even before the reasons behind them become wholly apparent.
What we are left with then is a film that is initially intriguing and one that is often open to interpretation and invention, but which reveals itself to be ultimately shallow and unconvincing. It becomes a film that is difficult to sympathise with, especially if you are not likely to be taken by what it is trying to say. It is a passable film let down by an ending that not only concludes the film on a bum note, but one that actively disrupts any of the good faith you may have had in the film before then. When Carole apologizes to Antoine and their problems are speedily solved at the film’s climax, the film takes a slightly sexist turn, wherein Carole suddenly has to apologize for things that she has no possible responsibility for. The film comes together around the idea that maternal and romantic love are the same, as if it is suggesting that all women are only either mothers or girlfriends. Equally, the film seems designed solely to empathize with Antoine’s position, which is especially problematic as Antoine is really rather unlikeable. Also, the film presents itself as an examination of the many forms of love, though the types of love that it looks at are solely familial and heterosexual. All of these problems culminate with the impression that where the film needed to be profound and understanding, it was merely meaningless and tactless.
Café de Flore is formally interesting and narratively challenging, though both speak more of the director’s artistic pretensions than his abilities. Though it is ambitious and its conclusions about love are nothing if not original, it is the kind of film that is just too easy to dismiss as so much claptrap.