Review: Cafe De Flore

With Jean-Marc Vallee’s latest film Cafe De Flore starting a wider release today (in Toronto followed by Ottawa and Vancouver in the coming weeks), we’re re-publishing our review from this year’s TIFF.

 

I was somewhat shaken walking out of Jean-Marc Vallee’s latest film and needed to actually catch my breath off to the side of the cell-phone checking hordes. It was partially due to several very personal reactions to a few moments and characters, but mostly because the film was absolutely magnificent in just about every respect. I’ve found my “I can’t imagine seeing a better film this year” film.

Vallee’s Young Victoria didn’t exactly win any converts in major production house circles, but anyone who saw C.R.A.Z.Y. has probably already given him a lifetime pass. As great as that film was (and if you haven’t seen it, please track it down via any legal means possible and also give a listen to the Movie Club Podcast episode specifically on that film), Cafe de Flore has just surpassed any reasonable expectation of what this filmmaker could do. Possibly even all the unreasonable expectations too. It shows a command of thematic content across multiple stories, an inate feeling of putting music to images and an almost perfect sense of flow. He knows when to ask his actors to be subtle, to bring forward some emotion and when to go BIG. He knows when to keep a scene going, when to stay with a take and when to cut across stories and time periods. That’s what I’m left with as I consider my reaction to the film – everything seemed dead on perfect.

 

 

Which might seem a bit funny to say when you hear the synopsis of the plot: High flying DJ with a great life bemoans leaving his beautiful wife for an even more beautiful woman while a mother struggles to take care of her Down’s Syndrome child in a parallel story from 40 years before. For awhile it seems like the only two things that connect the stories is a song by the name of Cafe de Flore – the 1960′s version is an uptempo lounge jazz number, while the present day one is pure dance club (make what you want of the fact that it is also the name of the coffee shop in Paris where Godard and other Paris intellectuals hung out). The song, though terribly catchy, isn’t necessarily notable, but it’s what it signifies to both the DJ (Antoine) and the young Down’s Syndrome boy that matters. For each, it’s a source of happiness and helps to restore their life force. In Antoine’s case, it reminds him specifically of the moment when he met his second soul mate and the silly song has now become a central part of his life. Music itself is his wellspring and perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I responded to the film so strongly. For anyone who lives with music day to day and finds an infinite source of pleasure and inspiration in it, Cafe de Flore will strike a chord. Antoine talks about it at a certain point in the movie when he relates how much happiness music has brought to his life and how he can even tell that strangers recognize that joy in him. It resonates. The scores of album covers from flashbacks to the early 80s (Joy Division, Patti Smith, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, etc.) should keep music fans happy too.

Though it’s easy not to feel overly sympathetic to Antoine as he complains to his psychiatrist, he is honestly concerned that he may have screwed up his family’s life – his ex-wife is on her way to a nervous breakdown and his older daughter is purposely trying to annoy him at every opportunity. He begins to wonder about his choices. Can you really find two “soul mates” during your life? Can new love spring up while you are already in love? What about those that are left in the wake? How do they handle letting go and what happens if they don’t? The mother and son story adds another layer to these questions as the young boy meets another Down’s Syndrome girl at school and they immediately become completely attached to each other (the scene of their initial meeting is one of the sweetest moments on film this year). His mother has been so close to him for so long that she doesn’t quite know how to handle this competition for her affections and so the parallels of the stories begin to make sense. The film absolutely takes off for the stratosphere around this time as Vallee starts to crosscut between the different stories with an almost wild abandon at times. One of the movie’s best sequences uses a Sigur Ros song and even plays up the obviousness of choosing it (his kids and his new soul mate make fun of him for over-playing the song). In a montage of scenes that pushes the themes of the film forward and creates further tension, Vallee creates a breathless sprint that washes over the viewer. It doesn’t matter if you don’t pick up every detail – the feelings and intent come across easily as the story lines hurtle towards a head-on meeting and the emotional attachments to these flawed but interesting people grow and help bring about a lovely resolution. Even if it doesn’t immediately shake you, it’s the kind of art that lingers with you for days. Likely even longer.





29 comments

  1. Spot on, Bob. It seems as though it affected us in much the same way.

    I, too, loved C.R.A.Z.Y. but couldn’t have seen a film like this coming.

    Great work!

  2. Thanks Shane! Just saw your own review on Toronto Film Scene and liked the comparison to a skipping record. Music is so damn essential to this film…

  3. Just put together a review of my own this morning for the film. Saw it at AFI Fest a couple weeks ago and absolutely loved it. Went in knowing absolutely nothing about it and was quite surprised at how good it was. I seriously wish it would get some more play down here in the states so I can go see it again.

  4. I’m loving the love for this film…Gonna see it again tonight.

  5. * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER

    Just saw this a second time (and it’s possibly even better the second time around). Did anyone notice that the very final scene of the plane explosion is duplicated at the very beginning of the film?

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    The explosion itself is at the beginning? I know the plane going across the sky (a very Un chien andalou image) turns up several times, but I didn’t remember the explosion being repeated. Hmmm. Would that suggest that the entire thing is “happening” during the split second of the explosion? What would that mean?

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    Yeah, I noticed both plane explosions and wasn’t quite sure how it played into the film. What was your take on that, Bob?

  8. Heh, seems like we have a similar line of questioning there Jandy. :) But yeah, I was definitely thinking about that image and what it meant in relation to the rest of the film as I left the theater.

  9. * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER *

    The explosion at the beginning threw me, but seeing the whole film again it simply strikes me as a way of indicating his first wife’s ability to finally let go. As with the big crash at the end of the Paris story, it’s the closure of an obsessive love. So I’m choosing not to see it as a real explosion (though this time around I noticed that he tells his analyst that he would never kill himself since with all the travelling he does by plane that his death likely won’t be his own choice). I think there’s enough room to interpret the Paris story as being completely in her dreams and not an actual previous life (remember the one scene where the Paris Mom walks away from a window at school after her son doesn’t come to his window to say bye and there’s a brief half second image of the blond girlfriend?) that I can see that also being a dream for her. Having said that, The before last image is a very zoomed in version of that church picture behind the teenage versions of Antoine and Carole that infers Paris Mom Jacqueline and her son are in the picture waving, but at that resolution it can’t be definite and could also be in Carole’s imagination (kind of like the scene in Blow Up where he thinks he sees the gun in the very zoomed in version of his photo).

    But I may be stretching…Tomas had a good read of it too in the previous thread for this review (from TIFF). Whatever the case, I’m having my own obsessive love for this film right now…

  10. Kurt Halfyard

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    The Plane’s explosion, for me is the ability to get close to perfection/nirvana/GOD which the sun represents, and obviously the plane is the journey. Even in letting go, happy ending and all that, there are more stages to enlightenment, and yes, ‘Carole’ is going to have to make go of things before nirvana. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

  11. Kurt Halfyard

    I think that CAFE DE FLORE would make a fascinating ‘spiritual’ double bill with Danny Boyle’s SUNSHINE, but that’s just me.

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    I thought Cafe de Flore was good. Very good in fact. But I found the last 10 minutes exceedingly pretentious and at odds with what made the rest of the movie so good. Tying the lives together this way isn’t nonsense, but the symbolism and twistiness of it turned me very much off. What makes the movie work is the way the characters work with each other, and the visual storytelling of their emotions. Towards the end it gets a little too Requiem-lite in style, and Darko-ish in guesswork, suggesting other ideas that don’t add anything to the power of the love story, and if anything just make the movie seem way too greedy, like it had to be more than it was. It distracts and lessens the rest of the film to me.

    And well, I will actually say the Laurent story is far far less interesting than the Antoine story, and it seems even Vallee knows it.

    It’s a very very good film, but after the hype, and compared to C.R.A.Z.Y., its not THAT great.

  13. Kurt Halfyard

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    I agree Goon, that didn’t need to be there, but I think it makes the Current story a bit stronger, in that ‘we can learn, we can do better’ as time goes on. An interestingly positive message, which is immediately put in perspective, that ideal, nirvana,, God is an ideal, one worth striving for, but probably not going to be obtained. (i.e. we will always remain flawed, we can always do better).

    I like that.

    A lot.

  14. SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER *

    Hmmm, though I do see what you mean to a certain extent Goon, the film still works like gangbusters for me. Part of it is certainly the personal reaction I had to it, but I love the pace of that final section and all the additional connections it makes – not just between the stories (with several of them giving added weight to the idea that the 60s story is all in Carole’s mind), but also to concepts raised earlier in the film (e.g. Antoine telling his therapist how he loves those silences in his sets because it sets things up for bigger crescendos – the editing does this wonderfully throughout the film).

    Though it starts as Antoine’s story, it’s really Carole’s story by the end. I felt the entire lead up to the final wedding scene made her love story (and her ability to finally let go) that much more meaningful. I see your point about too many ideas being thrown together, but I never felt it overly pretentious. I guess it’s reaching for grander concepts by the end, but I felt it was still doing so honestly.

    Glad you still mostly liked it though…

  15. *SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER * SPOILER

    I like your thoughts on the plane crash, Kurt, and think I agree. It fits within the theme of the film and plays well into what Antoine was saying to his therapist as well. And while I agree that tying the two stories together in such a way at the end is kind of stretching it, I thought the filmmaker did it well. At least, I didn’t feel too put off by the choices there.

    Dangit. I need to see this again.

  16. Howard Schumann

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    I can see that the 1969 Paris/Laurent events may be a dream of Carol, but isn’t it also possible that Carol is the reincarnation of Jacqueline?

    Also what happens to the boy Laurent at the end?

    One more question, did these children really have Down Syndrome or were they actng?

  17. *Spoiler* *Spoiler* *Spoiler* *Spoiler* *Spoiler* *Spoiler*
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    Howard, yeah, they definitely had Down Syndrome. As to what happened to Laurent at the end, I just assumed that he died in that car crash.

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    Howard, I definitely agree that the film is set up so that you could easily walk away thinking that Carole was indeed the reincarnation of Jacqueline. But it also leaves you with the possibility that she isn’t (given the images of the present that occasionally mingle with Carole’s 1969 Paris, that is my favoured resolution). I know a lot of people don’t care too much for the “paranormal” section towards the end, but given Carole’s desperation to find some reason for everything, something that she can accept so that she can move on (she even says this to her friend at one point), I thought it fit great.

    And both those kids (Laurent and Vero) were pretty damn fantastic, weren’t they?

  19. Howard Schumann

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    Ron – I really do not see the purpose in having Laurent die at the end (Are you convinced that he did?). It seems as if the theme is “letting go” and that they both would let go at the same time (Carole with Antoine, and Jacqueline of her jealousy of Vero) as if communicating with each other over the years. Laurent dying would seem to negate that.

  20. *Spoiler* *Spoiler* *Spoiler* *Spoiler* *Spoiler* *Spoiler*
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    I think Laurent dying was mainly how I took it on first viewing. I’d like to see the film again with the idea that perhaps the kids didn’t die. But initially, I just went with the idea that not letting go was such a destructive force that it could only lead to a terrible end and that that crash was symbolic of it. Their “deaths” almost made Carole letting go more powerful for me. But like I said, I would like to see this again and go with the idea that perhaps they didn’t die.

  21. Howard Schumann

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    My thought is that Carole has a vision of a possible tragedy that spurs her to let go before it actually happens.

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    “It seems as if the theme is “letting go” and that they both would let go at the same time (Carole with Antoine, and Jacqueline of her jealousy of Vero) as if communicating with each other over the years. Laurent dying would seem to negate that.”

    That’s the whole point, as I understood it. Jacqueline DIDN’T let go and chose to destroy the person she loved rather than let go. Carole’s story was like a second chance to let go rather than destroy, and she succeeded.

  23. Howard Schumann

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    If that was the case, how would Carol have known that it actually occurred or that it took place in her mind? It seems more likely to me that it was simply a warning to her to act immediately.

  24. Howard Schumann

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    Was the scene at AA suggesting that the marriage between Carol and Antoine broke up because of alcoholism?

  25. Will finally be seeing this in a couple of weeks at the MPLS film festival. I can then come back to this thread and see what all these words are going on about!

  26. strybeck

    This just popped up on Netflix-US streaming. Guess I got no excuse not to see it now.

  27. strybeck Oh hell yes.  Been looking forward to seeing this again.  Just make sure you turn it up nice and loud strybeck

    Best movie of 2012

  28. I’m pretty sure that isn’t possible because Mamo said so.

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