M-SPIFF Review: Café de Flore

 


 

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.)
Writer: Jean-Marc Vallée
Producers: Pierre Even, Marie-Claude Poulin
Starring: Vanessa Paradis, Kevin Parent, Hélène Florent, Evelyne Brochu, Marin Gerrier, Alice Dubois
Country of Origin: France
MPAA Rating: NR
Running time: 120 min.

 

 

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.

IMDb

[review originally written and posted for the 2011 TIFF]

 


 

Bob Turnbull
Critical Thinker At Large

4 Comments

  1. So yeah I pretty much loved it. A simple story but crafted in an emotionally impacting way. It feels like a staple gun hitting you all over your body in staggered time increments. It hurts so good.

    Bonus on the Pink Floyd.

    Reply
  2. So glad you liked it Andrew…It’s funny, if you had told me before seeing that part of the soundtrack would be from “Darkside Of The Moon” I might have shrugged – yeah, it’s a classic album but I’ve also heard ten gazillion times. But holy crap does he use it well within the film.

    Would love to hear any additional thoughts you might have Andrew – especially in regards to that long conversation Mike, Kurt and I had.

    Reply
  3. Hi Bob – and greetings to Minnesota. Yes, Cafe de Flore leaves you shaken, especially if you have any life experience and can empathise with the predicament of the characters. I liked Andrew’s description of the effect it had on him too. I posted back in March on C.de F. and have seen it a couple more times since then and it still hits with the same power. You can absolutely feel Carol’s hopelessness – the scene near the end when she comes to ask Antoine’s forgiveness is so personal and the way the camera lingers on them and then the panning out for her to include Rose is something incredibly giving and finalises her attempts to move on. Her silent scream in one scene is one of those staple gun moments too.

    The performances of Marin Gerrier and Alice Dubois, the two Downs children, are deeply touching, and reading Jean-Marc’s stories of working with them show the compassionate and sensitive man he must be – and he’s put that in this film. He’s created a piece of visual poetry and the story flows well out of the evocative soundtrack. It’s so refreshing to see a movie that has been crafted with the kind of skill Jean-Marc Vallee has – simple story overall, music as both character and soundtrack, great performances from Canadian actors who are not such big names and for Kevin Parent, a first-timer on screen, a huge presence in the way he plays Antoine. And Vanessa plays her role with true tenderness. It’s a rare bird of a film and one to to watch again and again. Thank you to Jean-Marc too – it’s a work of immense warmth. You might enjoy Zanussi’s “A Year of the Quiet Sun” from 1984, a little dark and mystical but a beautifully made film.

    Reply
  4. Barb, thanks for the recommendation of “A Year Of The Quiet Sun” – I’ve added it to my zip.ca queue (it’s not available at the moment, but when it is I have it high up in the list).

    Vallee mentioned in a Q&A earlier this year at the Lightbox in Toronto that he initially cast Alice first for Veronique. She asked him if he wanted to meet her boyfriend and that’s how he met Marin. He cast him for Laurent after seeing them together and talking to him, so that connection you see between the two of them in the film is real.

    Reply

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