Café de Flore gets to the heart of the matter
Jean-Marc Vallée explores two love triangles set in different eras that share a mysterious link in Café de Flore, written and directed by the French-Canadian himself. Theorising on the very nature of love and its consequences, Vallée has composed a hauntingly beautiful film that struggles to find a clear path to its eventual conclusions.
Opening with the modern timeline set in Montreal, globe-trotting DJ Antione (Kevin Parent) is described as having every reason to be happy and the ability to realise it. A concurrent timeline is soon introduced, shifting the story to Paris with the birth of Laurent (Marin Gerrier) in 1969. Suffering from Down syndrome, the contrast is made between this unfortunate child and Antione. Café de Flore spends extended periods of time with each story before shifting to the other, often seamlessly or with the assistance of exceptional sound editing. While presenting seemingly ordinary events in these two lives, a sense of foreboding fills the opening act. A woman’s scream, mixed in at various moments, often lends Café de Flore a nightmarish quality. As Laurent’s loyal mother Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) vows to ensure he has a long, worthwhile life, back in Montreal, more is revealed about Antione’s troubled past and his failed relationship with the mother (Hélène Florent) of his daughters; introducing another timeline via flashbacks. There is much plot development to follow and unfortunately, Café de Flore loses some of the tension it initially builds once it settles into the second act where the pieces slowly begin to come together.
Café de Flore is a heavy film, both in material and presentation. The response to Laurent’s disability and the way in which it is illustrated is sadly touching. The production contributes significantly to the success of the film: music plays a major role in the lives of the characters and provides the ties that bind the film together. A soundtrack featuring Sigur Rós adds to the ethereal tone struck by Vallée through his story and framing. The cinematography here is gorgeous and perfectly suited for what lies in store. The performers more than hold up their end. Paradis is excellent as Laurent’s dedicated and determined mother. Her pain feels entirely real and it’s easy to empathise with her tragic character. In fact, much the same can be said for all the players here and part of what makes Café de Flore work is how genuine it comes across. However, it is also why, for that same reason, the final act feels so out-of-place.
The problem isn’t the statement that Café de Flore makes, but rather how it does so. Vallée utilises subtle symbolism so well that it feels unfortunate when the film takes heavy-handed turns, with the final shot being especially unnecessary. Still, Café de Flore provides a lot of food for thought. The subject matter (being purposely skirted so as to not spoil what Café de Flore is actually all about) can, of course, be easily dismissed by sceptics, but may strike a significant chord with romantics. At two hours and with so many cuts between eras, the film could use a trim of 15 minutes or so and it would benefit from a tighter climax, but there’s a lot worth seeing here, even just from an artistic standpoint.
Café de Flore provides a thought-provoking and touching experience. Uplifting and depressing, almost at once, it offers a striking change of pace from straight forward tales of romance or light rom-coms. While Café de Flore falters in tying up the various strands, its natural performances, excellent imagery, and terrific editing and scoring make it easy to recommend giving it a chance. Café de Flore may be an imperfect look at love, but perhaps that’s fitting. 8/10