In present-day Montreal, the handsome Antoine seems to “radiate happiness from every pore.” No wonder. In the prime of his life, he has an enviable career as a globe-trotting DJ; owns a palatial home where he shares custody of his two daughters while remaining on amicable terms with his beautiful ex-wife Carole, who still loves him; and enjoys a passionate relationship with his gorgeous girlfriend Rose, who craves him. Back in the Paris of 1969, Jacqueline is a single mother occupying a small apartment with her son Laurent, a Down syndrome child. She is devoted to the boy, as is he to her, and their mutual love has allowed him to flourish.
Two contrasting lives, two different times and locales, two separate stories. Or are they?
That question mark hovers over the entirety of Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore, whose dual narratives, both obsessed with love in its various guises, are designed to arrive at a point of mystical convergence. After a less than fruitful dalliance with Hollywood in The Young Victoria, Vallée returns here to the form he displayed in C.R.A.Z.Y. That film was stylistically accomplished, thematically ambitious and thoroughly impressive. This one dazzles too, albeit not quite as brightly. Right to the end and beyond, it’s certainly mystifying. What it isn’t, at least not completely, is satisfying.
Vallée is quick to flash his technical gifts, not only seamlessly cutting between the settings, but also employing flashbacks within each segment – for example, back to Antoine and Carole as teenage sweethearts, soulmates in the making. With all these shifts to and fro, time begins to blur, and so does our pristine view of Antoine (Kevin Parent) as a happy man. Cracks appear in the façade. He bears guilt for breaking up his family, and for shattering a bond that Carole (Hélène Florent) holds sacred. For her part, she is haunted by the loss and tormented by dreams, lately of a little boy in a past life and of a love different in nature but equally potent.
Such is the parental love that Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) feels for Laurent. Their scenes together are a joy to watch. It’s a deep and natural affection, playfully punctuated by their favourite song that she plays over and over again – a lightly jazzy tune called Café de Flore. That’s the same song, set to club rhythms, that Antoine plays at his gigs. Yes, tiny connective threads are starting to form and, as in C.R.A.Z.Y, music is a significant catalyst, redolent of memories that float across the decades.
Gradually, these threads thicken and multiply. In Montreal, the father argues with his daughter, who feels betrayed over the divorce and resentful of Rose. In Paris, the mother clashes with her son, who, for the first time, is directing his emotions away from her towards another – a young girl, a schoolmate also with Down syndrome. The children cling to each other, literally inseparable in their discovered love, and Jacqueline too experiences a sense of betrayal and resentment. Initially, these overlapping strands in the stories seem like intriguing coincidences – riffs on the theme of loves lost and found. However, it’s soon evident that Vallée has something more mysterious in mind.
But what exactly? Well, that’s a problem. The present-day segment starts to dominate, with the plot growing in complications – Antoine tussles with his own father; he visits a psychiatrist; Carole meets with a psychic. At this point, despite the consistently strong cast and Vallée’s continued artistry with the camera, our patience gets a bit tried. The temptation is to cry out: Forget this two-story gimmick – pick one and tell it well.
Eventually, though, the film commands our attention again as more connections emerge – not enough to fully solve the mystery, but sufficient to convince us that Café de Flore amounts to more than the triumph of style over substance. This is the kind of picture that demands a second viewing, to confirm either the fond hope that there’s more to learn or the lingering suspicion that there’s less here than meets the eye. As for the final clue that runs over the end credits, be sure to wait for it, and please don’t leave as I did – just further puzzled by the puzzle’s last piece.
Café de Flore
- Directed and written by Jean-Marc Vallée
- Starring Kevin Parent, Vanessa Paradis, Hélène Florent
- Classification: NA