[We are back at it after a long hiatus since our first conversation post on Mammoth, but hopefully these will come out with more frequency thereafter. I am sure we do not cover everything there is to be said about Café de Flore, so feel free to extend the conversation in the comment section. Finally, this conversation is all spoilers, we get into the fine details so only read if you have seen the film.]
Synopsis From the director, Jean-Marc Vallée: “Cafe de Flore is a love story about people separated by time and place but connected in profound and mysterious ways. Atmospheric, fantastical, tragic and hopeful, the film chronicles the parallel fates of Jacqueline, a young mother with a disabled son in 1960s Paris, and Antoine, a recently-divorced, successful DJ in present day Montreal. What binds the two stories together is love – euphoric, obsessive, tragic, youthful, timeless love.”
Mike: There are certain films that require discussion upon leaving the theater, it seems impossible to just go on with your day after seeing something like Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore. We have been waiting since Mammoth for the right kind of movie to do a conversation post for and this seems to check all the boxes, from the meaty thematic elements to the open-ended aspects of what exactly happened. I have stayed away from the spoiler thread on Row Three so I am coming to the conversation completely fresh. Of the three of us, I believe I will be the most critical, but it is a fine distinction as, on the whole, I think it is a very good movie. Who knows, maybe my mind will change with this conversation, the more pieces that are put together. I would like to get a general sense of why the film spoke to you guys, because both of you have been praising this film hard.
Bob: Well, Café de Flore goes beyond the definition of a very good movie for me…Not that I think it’s perfect (how can a movie really be perfect with so many possibilities?), but that just about every moment of the film hit me in exactly the right way and at the right time to cause maximum impact. To my ear, it hits all the right notes as an exercise in technical filmmaking, as an inventive piece of art and as something that simply connected to me for a variety of personal reasons. On the technical side, it’s beautifully shot, naturally scripted and contains an abundance of wonderful performances (from first timer Kevin Parent to Vanessa Paradis, but especially all the kids). Vallée proves without a doubt that he is highly skilled when it comes to coaching his actors and letting them know when to go for subtle and when to go big. As a work of art, it becomes something altogether different and original in its approach to its two storylines. It’s impressive enough that he can balance the two, but he does so in the manner of a DJ (just like his male lead Antoine) – moving his overall piece from one side of the mixing board to the other and then cutting between them, mixing them up and bringing them both together towards the end. It’s like the best DJ set ever. Antoine even talks to his therapist at one point about how he loves to bring in silence to his sets because it sets up the whomp that follows and Vallée applies that very same strategy to his movie. This was used to fantastic effect to bring home its theme of letting go since not only will it help to avoid the emotional calamities ahead, but “letting go” will also allow a deeper appreciation of what your current life has to offer.
Kurt: First off, fellas, I am glad that we have resurrected this feature, and since Café De Flore has left Toronto Cinemas after a mere two week run, it seems that this film certainly needs a little help to get recognized outside of French Speaking Canada. So our cause is both fun, stimulating (hopefully) and ah, heck, noble even. OK, down to brass tacks: There is a scene late in the film, when the two story lines start to gel that features the most interesting and sophisticated cross cutting I’ve seen in a film in 2011, perhaps the last ten years even. The DJ mixing analogy is apt, and the emotional beats, in this stretch of the film, are not revealed by plotting information (that is to come later) but rather completely by editing strategy, as if you are being primed by a collection of images and asked to inject yourself into things (Terence Malick actually does a similar, if slightly different riff of this in a different fashion in the construction of a Tree of Life). That the ebb and flow of the editing is actually non-intuitive (pauses and shot lengths) is kind of a small miracle.
Mike: The reveal is awesome. Having just rewatched Incendies (another Canadian masterwork) I see how both films draw out the revelation in this same kind of disjointed way, you are being told the revelation in another scene and the voice carries over and, in Café de Flore, I am thinking of the shot of Carole’s car pulling over on the side of the road, and yeah, the timelines accelerating to emotional beats as the reveal is being told. It was funny watching Incendies with my wife on the second viewing because the way that reveal is told is so offhand, that she didn’t even pick it up until the daughter gasping scene several minutes later. Both films hit a fugue state at that point and it is movie magic. My favorite use of music in the film is Sigur Ros though, both because I love that song but how it’s chorus is echoed by the daughters before the song is even introduced and then the song comes and the chorus hits at the moment Antoine encounters Rose at the AA meeting, and ‘It’s YOUUUUUU” haunting lyric. I was not a big fan of the song Café de Flore, which is one of my complaints, because it plays such a significant role in the story.
Kurt: Have you ever watched the music video for that Sigur Ros song? It features angelic down-syndrome kids, and whatnot. Similar enoughh thematically to Café De Flore that my guess is that it was one of the key inspirations for the creation of film. Songs have a way to inspire films to be made about them. It’s a nice further connection in a film of connections.
Mike: Just looked up the Sigur Ros song, it is called Svefn-G-Englar which in english translates to Sleepwalkers. This seems to support your theory Kurt. You get a great song that hits the emotional beat of soulmates meeting in reincarnation and about sleepwalking and the whole idea of dreaming all in one.
Bob: I actually found myself humming the crap out of “Café de Flore”, but the song certainly is a trifle. Even Antoine states that at one point – he wishes that this song that now means so much to him and which connects with his first sighting of Rose was something more than just a stupid pop song. But that’s part of the strength of music in how it attaches to images and moments of your life – you can’t choose when it’ll happen and which songs you want as your own soundtrack.
Mike: Perhaps I should drop this observation here: Café de Flore is the name of a bistro in Paris which adds to the association between the Quebec and the Parisian timelines. But also, one of the lingering shots in the end of the film is of Notre Dame Cathedral with what I believe to be Jacqueline on the bank, making the link between the two times in the one photograph. The Easter Egg is that Notre Dame in English translates to ‘Our Mother’. Also this motif of pictures within pictures seems to crop up a lot in the film (the constant showing of the staircase looking down evokes this same characteristic of embedding).
Bob: Ah, but is that really Jacqueline in the photo? It’s about as clear as the photos from Antonioni’s “Blow Up” (another film that is all about one’s perception of one’s own reality). Carole would have seen that photo as a teenager (she’s in the photo of that photo), so it could be a lingering artifact that she has woven into her conception of the truth. Personally, I much prefer that as it fits with a story that deals with how you cope with letting go – otherwise, it’s just Carole coming to the realization of a past life instead of being about coping. The film is also filled with these coping mechanisms – alcohol, drugs, therapy, the daughter’s use of music against her Dad, etc. Also, the real bistro Café de Flore is one of the many cafes where Godard and other intellectuals of the time hung out. And if the obvious touches of Nouvelle Vague in the film aren’t enough for you, apparently its narrator is Emmanuelle Riva who appeared in Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (at least that’s what Vallée says in an online interview). Oh, the dovetailing layers…
Mike: I have a completely different perspective on the Notre Dame photograph. First of all, I was assuming it is a photograph Antoine’s parents took while in Paris as it is on their big wall of photos, and while yes, there is a photo of young Carole and Antoine that the film zooms into, the Notre Dame photograph has nobody in it save a figure waving on the opposite shore. The time lines could have overlapped in the event of taking the photograph, so it is a moment of synchronicity and I think in the film the zooming in is intended to draw that into focus, the star-crossed lovers in the foreground, the future incarnation of what Jacqueline caused as she, in the past and suitably behind, seems to try and bridge the gap waving out at them. No one is seeing that figure, we are because the film wants us to see it. Remember Antoine makes the case earlier on that in all his photos there is the gin and the girl. It sets up the Look Closer idea but the zoom in is for us only. I have more to say about Hiroshima, Mon Amour and the soul mate thread that brings out, but will wait on that and finish the thought about the cosmic view I see. Back to the point about how the film is like a tribute to the power of music, did you notice that all of the pivotal moments in the characters lives were fused with music? The obvious ones are Antoine meeting Rose at the party, and I am guessing Café de Flore was playing then, then you have Carole as a teenager listening to the mixtape and shouting in the park her love for Antoine, and for Jacqueline, the moment she decides to give her heart to her son is in Notre Dame while there is choir music playing, and then you have the association made between Laurent and Vero with the Café de Flore album, although that one seems after the fact, I think I may have missed how it plays out in that part of the story. Antoine also has that great speech to his therapist that is played over him jogging about how music seems to seep into the real world and affect it in this magical way. While listening to his headphones he was convinced the world was smiling at him, they could feel his joy. The therapist quickly undermines this conceit, and says they probably just saw you smile and responded to that. The mystical as merely a misunderstanding. I think something similar is played out in the medium scene too, there is the mystical truth of the parallel stories but doesn’t the medium efface it, tell her skeptical friend that she just said what Carole wanted to hear? One of my initial critiques of the film was how neatly it seemed to resolve the parallel stories but now that I think of this, it does seem like Vallée is saying more about this mystical element; that perspective plays a part in making it so.
Bob: Mike, you already hit two of my favourite moments from the film – Antoine’s view that people can actually see the joy that music brings to him and the entirety of the Sigur Ros segment. For the latter, Vallée even plays up the fact that Sigur Ros is getting to be a bit of a cliché as film music when Antoine’s daughters and wife make fun of him for choosing that song. But then Vallée actually uses it and it’s gorgeous (he also uses the technique of stopping the song and then coming back to it to reinforce certain beats and emotions). As for the resolution of the parallel stories, I think Vallée does leave it less obvious then many people may think upon first viewing. I certainly have my own version of events and what role the medium actually plays, but there’s room for interpretation. In fact the penultimate shot in the film (the slow zoom into the photograph within the photograph) can easily be taken to answer the question and be thought to be a final statement that Jacqueline’s story was the truth. However, if you look at it from the point of view that Carole is simply looking for an answer that she can live with and will enable her to let go (which she even admits to her friend) then one can easily see that shot as showing that she had retained that single very out of focus image in her mind and incorporated it into her own dreams. Which gets back to Mike’s point about perspective…Initially you see the film as Antoine’s story, but if shifts to being Carole’s.
Kurt: I am completely on board that the 1960s Paris story could be read as a very strong ‘figment’ of Carole’s imagination, but then why have such a convincing (and great) scene with the Medium and Carole’s friend to force the viewers attention/consideration the other way? I supposed Vallée has constructed-ambiguity (much different than say Donnie Darko’s accidental studio edit ambiguity) and ‘universal’ on the brain, as confirmed with the very final shot in the film with the plane exploding. It appears that 2011 is the year for making the individual crisis scale up to a much more cosmic/spiritual crisis (Melancholia, Another Earth, Tree of Life are all equally fine examples of this.)
Mike: The film unfolds like a dream… not just people waking as cuts to scenes, but how the placement is out of order, not knowing what characters play what roles (i.e. we assume Rose is the wife in the scene where the voice-over is saying Antoine has everything he needs to be happy) reproduces the sensation of groggily waking and not fully knowing who you are and then things get clearer more coherent, once you have your coffee. The style of the film plays into that beautifully.
Bob: I felt that the medium scene sets up Carole’s use of the past life angle as her coping mechanism. The medium even states that she was telling her what she wanted to know. It also shows that her friend (as well-intentioned as she may be), doesn’t quite get the difficulty of letting go. She is always simply telling Carole to move on and stop focusing on Antoine, but she doesn’t see how very difficult that is until both the Medium and Carole essentially tell her that some people need these additional mechanisms to come to a resolution. Even if they end up lying to themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see Carole’s friend grind the Medium into the dirt with her heels, but my interpretation is that the movie shows this paranormal angle as one way for people like Carole (who desperately needs to understand WHY) to find meaning. Rationalization is a powerful tool.
Mike: Like I said, I think Vallée wants some ambiguity, this idea of the mystical as misunderstanding, and that is why he allows the Medium to efface her mystical claims, to keep the conversation going. Personally I was a bit upset with how explicit the relationship between the two time lines were made, and so this ambiguity takes away that certainty and makes it a better film. However, I do still believe in the two time lines and the mystical part of it, and I think the second medium scene has to do with her trying to get rid of someone who has said upfront she thinks what she does is bullshit. She tells the friend what she wants to believe (isn’t that what they do?). What point would there be to explain to a cynical non-believer? As Kurt said, why have so much detail to a time line that is merely an anecdote? How would the Medium pick up on Notre Dame cathedral, which plays a part in the Jacqueline story and the photograph zoom? Seems awkward for that to somehow come up in the Medium conversation off-screen to justify this association (had they shown Carole handing the Medium that photograph than I would agree but I do not remember that happening).
Kurt: Getting away from specifics and minutae (however much the director may be drawing attention to them), one thing that I took away from Café De Flore is the notion that we can all strive to be better – not to dig in our heels – and to let go. Cliche maybe, but Jean-Marc Vallée puts such an invigorating spin on this shop-worn theme that it feels exceptionally fresh. That in itself makes the film a pretty staggering work, he finds a new way to tell this type of story.
Bob: And to briefly return to specifics and minutae, there’s a scene in the Paris timeline (I forget exactly where) when Jacqueline is realizing she is “losing” her son to Vero that she walks away from a closing glass door and as the door swings closed a reflection of Rose appears in it. Granted that could just be a filmic trick from Vallée to make the connection for the audience, but to me it’s a fairly clear indicator that it’s happening to Carole and she is building that older timeframe slowly through her dreams. I don’t specifically remember the medium namechecking the Notre Dame – that certainly would be an indication that the film is trying to have its cake and eat it too as Kurt said. It doesn’t mean that the medium couldn’t have got that info from Carole, but it leaves that open.
Mike: Ok this is my interpretation: the film is about responsibility for one’s actions, and not merely in a common ethical way, but within some kind of cosmic logic of reincarnation. It seems that Laurent and Vero were meant to be together in a way that Jacqueline disrupted, her action has repercussions in the next life and then given the choice again she lets go and allows what was meant to happen to occur and brings balance to the universe. But it is not balance, there is no balance, the universe is not static but active, a domino effect of actions changes the course of people’s lives continually. In multiverse rhetoric you have the idea that every thought forks off and makes two different paths, and they fork off, ad inifinitum. The story of Jacqueline didn’t start out of nowhere, it had prior decisions affecting her course, and I believe likewise Carole’s decision in changing the story of Antoine and Rose, affects what could have been in another forked path. Early on in the film Antoine talks about the idea of dying in a plane crash as a possibility for his life. It seems significant to say that and then begin and end the film with a plane crash, so what is the association? I think it is this: the transference of tragedy takes place elsewhere, to someone else, and because of one act a plane can explode. The domino effect continues, but played in the film, it is either beginning or end, symbolic for this chain of events that happens. The story in Café de Flore is not self-contained but exists within an ever-moving universe. Pictures within pictures, nothing independent of anything else. Not just reasoned ethics, put the prima facie ethics of co-existence. Kurt says, we can all strive to be better, and I think it goes beyond just that sentiment, it is grounded in something cosmic. Like I said before, the style of the film plays out like the whole thing is dream-like, the story materializing out of mist, so the Rose appearing in the reflection is not out of place, and you are right, it could be a specific clue, but I tend to see it as part of the smudging of the lines to make things less clear. The plane exploding before the sun has got to be one of the most potent images particularly for interpretation, feels like something Malick would use. The first thing I thought of is conception, sperm and egg, and that the sperm dies before it can conceive, which, even if you don’t want to take the literal explanation I have, that it is a physical consequence of decisions made in the story, symbolically it gets at the same idea, life is snuffed out (micro and macro in one image!), a path is altered.
Kurt: My interpretation of that closing image is that as good as Carole ‘succeeds’ in letting go of Antoine and letting him ‘love’ his new wife, one can always continue to improve. The goal of getting to the sun (i.e. God, i.e. perfection) is one that people should always strive for, but it is nigh impossible to actually achieve. Still the self-improvement is noble. I think it is a powerful image of the hope for people, and the perpetual imperfection, this is kind of the entire movie in miniature, and I’m glad the image is there. As if to say, “don’t feel so damn proud of yourself folks, and this happy ending, there is still a ways to go.”
Mike: I do want to get back to something Bob said as a segueway to another element of the film that spoke to me. You mentioned an association to Hiroshima, Mon Amour which I find fascinating because I got a huge sense of that movie while watching this, particularly in Carole’s plight to forget the love of Antoine, as the woman in Hiroshima must forget her first love, the dead soldier. This leads to the notion of soulmates, or as someone in the film calls it, ‘twin flames on their way to unity’. I believe the Medium says this the implication being they were in the sequence of reincarnation one tier away from unity. I wasn’t sure if that was poetic, or I misheard or some genuine belief. It makes the simultaneous death with the mother some kind of disruption in this elected path of Laurent and Vero that needs to be rectified, and ultimately is, by Carole letting go. The plane crashing just before the sun echoes this cosmic disruption, which occurs at the beginning of the film but does not happen in the end if I remember correctly – or like the top in Inception the film cuts before letting you know the truth. If it is some kind of destiny, this idea of one person for all time, this also challenges the issue of free-will to some extent, and if a cosmic comment, ruins the significance of Antoine’s plight. He would have had no other choice but to love Rose; the air is let out of that drama. I have a problem with this, because what was originally most fascinating about this story for me was someone being so happy and fulfilled and then ruining it by falling for someone else. A friend of mine once went through a mid-life crisis and he told me there was no indication of a problem, he made it sound like a cautionary tale that could happen to anyone once you reach the age of 35; one second he was happy in love in his marriage and then out of nowhere this other thing came out. I personally don’t believe that can happen, at least to me, but it does fascinate me as something tragic.
Bob: I can’t really disagree with either of your interpretations – they are slightly more “cosmic” and grand then my own view of the film, but I think we all get to the same basic place which is that you need to take responsibility for yourself and learn to adjust to what life gives you. As a parent, that’s a huge thing. As much as you love your child and as overwhelming as that can be, you will at some point need to let go of them. And all you can do is control how that affects you. It will be painful and you can’t stop every bad thing that might happen to them, but you have to let them fly with their own wings…In Carole’s case, she can’t prevent the plane exploding, but at least she can regain her own life. Bad things will happen, but life needs to go on. There’s also an obvious Icarus allusion you could pull from that initial and final image (the plane does most definitely explodes at both the beginning and the end) about flying too close to the sun and getting burned. Antoine feels he might die in a plane crash and yet continues to travel to push his career forward. He’s happy in his first marriage, but then meets a second “soulmate” and can’t help but go after her. There are consequences to your actions…And didn’t Rose have a big tattoo of a sun? Mike, I too was intrigued by the question of “what if you have two soulmates?”, but I look at that differently. Both my wife and I believe that there is a distinct percentage of the population (however small it may be) with whom each of us could have built a happy life – a different life no doubt and one where different choices end up being made, but still one that could be fulfilling and successful. It removes the romantic notion of your partner being the “only one” for you, but it also removes this “second soulmate” quandry. For Antoine, he feels he can’t let a second soulmate slip away, but in our case if we meet someone who fits the threshold for potential soulmate it’s only an intriguing thought. We’ve made our choice to be with each other and accept it for all its good and even sometimes bad. The new person may appeal to different aspects, but if you already have happiness (especially when you have kids and you just can’t imagine – or at least don’t want to imagine – a life without them) why would you throw it away for simply a different kind of happiness?
Mike: I never noticed the tattoo, but it would make sense, the film is awash in iconography.
Kurt: One other thing I’d like to talk about is how the kids use music as an emotional weapon. Not sure if I saw this done quite this way in a film before, especially not from kids using their parents music. As Vallée is a maestro with using music in film in general, this should be no surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting.
Bob: Indeed, I mentioned above how the eldest daughter uses music as a weapon against her Dad (purposely playing songs that will remind him of her mother) and as a coping mechanism for herself. It’s handled extremely well – not too much so that she seems like a petulant child, but still very much a child poking their parent to see how far they can push. As for the Sigur Ros song, I was just listening to a live version of it this morning in the car (off the live “Inni” album) and the music is incredibly painterly – no doubt that Vallée wanted to use it to build the tension of his characters, etc. The English translation of the lyrics (he never sings “It’s you!” by the way, but I like how the characters sing that phrase in the car) certainly prop up the idea of the dreamlike state that Carole finds herself in at night and the pain she wakes up to…
Mike: Again, not to read too deeply into it, but the fact that “it’s you!” is not the actual lyric yet played out in the film and in the car as if it was, goes toward my previous point that Vallée plays with the idea of ‘mystical as misunderstanding’, or in this case, misheard. Life could be a sequence of grand misunderstandings that may lead to either tragedy and elation. Again, the world smiling at Antoine, the con of perception.
Kurt: Like many films of 2011, there was a strong ‘parenting theme’ in the film. I felt that Vanessa Paradis anchored this very much, but only because her thread with an autistic child is so obvious. In the modern story, it is more a function of how Carole/Antoine interact, but there are lots of filtering down to the kids. The key parenting questions is: “How tight do you hold on out of love and when are you a liability or holding on out of selfishness instead of actual love?” As a parent of two kids, I think this is a very relevant (and often subtle) question that is difficult to ask. I’ve seen it manifest itself in many other films, but nowhere near as elegant as in this one.
Bob: I also can’t deny that as a parent, I couldn’t help but be affected by the dynamics of the relationships (mother and son, father and daughters, father and son, father and daughter-in-law) and how extraordinarily honest each one felt. And finally, any film with a scene as sweet and moving as the moment Laurent and Vero meet for the first time must be given as much praise as possible. Mike, are there other aspects of the film that don’t completely work for you? You mentioned at the outset that you probably had more issues with it than Kurt and I – is that simply due to wrestling with its meaning as we’ve been discussing or were there other points?
Mike: To answer your question, Bob, my chief problem with the story is this idea that Antoine and Rose are destined to be together, that the drama of that marital dilemma is undermined by this layer of the story. It is interesting that Laurent and Vero both had a disability, Down Syndrome, and that Antoine and Rose also have a disability, alcoholism. One is by birth, the other seemingly by choice. In both the illness ties them together, strengthens the bond. Where once again I hope that Antoine and Rose have some free-will in the story to make their own decisions it seems the almighty story makes even their ailments destined. Nothing they can do gets them out of this predestination, and while I do find that aspect interesting, I much prefer the more terrestrial drama of a guy sacrificing everything for a different kind of happiness. I realize your interpretation allows for that, and the ambiguity softens the blow, so mostly I love the movie and perhaps on second viewing I can look away from the cosmic perspective. I think we should probably wrap up, unless you have more to add? Any closing thoughts?
Bob: I’ve certainly come around to the more “terrestrial” version as I don’t see the film specifically stating that the previous life idea is in fact what happened, nor do I see Antoine and Rose as destined for each other. He made the choice and has to live with the consequences. Unfortunately, others have to live with those consequences too and I think that’s where the real story lies – it isn’t Antoine’s story, it’s Carole’s. The “previous life” story is her own way of gradually working things out and letting go. I’m not sure if I would look at the last shot as being karma coming back to Antoine, but if you are always looking for a different kind of happiness you might eventually get burned (even when he is with Rose, he wonders if he made the right choice).
Mike: If IMDb is to be any bastion of truth, they don’t even credit the child actors as Laurent and Vero, but as Carole and Antoine (age 14). So clearly, Bob, you are wrong! Heh. Alright, this was fun.