Café de Flore *** ½
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée.
Written by: Jean-Marc Vallée.
Starring: Vanessa Paradis (Jacqueline), Kevin Parent (Antoine Godin), Hélène Florent (Carole), Evelyne Brochu (Rose), Marin Gerrier (Laurent), Alice Dubois (Véronique), Evelyne de la Chenelière (Amélie), Michel Dumont (Julien Godin), Linda Smith (Louise Godin), Joanny Corbeil-Picher (Juliette), Rosalie Fortier (Angéline), Michel Laperrière (Le psychologue), Caroline Bal (La mère de Véronique), Nicolas Marié (Le père de Véronique).
After Jean-Marc Valle made his breakthrough hit, C.R.A.Z.Y., a semi-autobiographical movie about being a gay teenager in 1970s Quebec, Hollywood came calling, and he went off and made the period film The Young Victoria. I liked that movie, but it didn’t have the same energy that C.R.A.Z.Y. had – it didn’t even really feel like it was made by the same director, and I worried that this great, young Canadian filmmaker was going to get lost in Hollywood. But his new film, Café de Flore – his best yet – erases those doubts. This is the film I expected him to make as his follow-up to C.R.A.Z.Y.
The film follows two different story tracks, and for most of the movie, you wonder how he’s going to bring them together, if he’s going to at all. In one, Vanessa Paradis plays Jacqueline, a young mother in 1960s Paris, who husband walks out on her and their new born son when they find out he has Down syndrome. This doesn’t deter her at all – she is determined to ensure that her son Laurent (Marin Gerrier) lives a long and happy life. The two are devoted to each other, and shut out the rest of the world. That is until a new girl, who also has Down syndrome, joins his class, and the two seven year olds develop an even deeper attachment to each other. This doesn’t sit well with Jacqueline at all.
In the other, it’s modern day Montreal, and Antoine (Kevin Parent) has every reason to be happy. He has a job he loves – as a DJ – he has two beautiful daughters, and he is hopelessly in love with Rose (Evelyne Brochu). The problem is that Rose is not the mother of his kids – that’s Carole (Helene Florent), and she and Antoine had been together since they were teenagers. They thought they were each other soul mates – and Antoine was happy until he met Rose, who he now thinks is his soul mate. But if you can replace one soul mate with another, what does that say about the entire concept?
For much of the movie, we assume that these are not two separate stories of love and loss running parallel to each other – both about a relationship where one of the partners was completely fulfilled by the relationship, but the other looks outside of that relationship and forms another, deeper connection. Yes, one is about the love between a mother and her son, and the other about a husband and wife, but love is love.
But there are two many connections, that Vallee draws subtlety, between these two stories for it to be that simple. Vallee uses both visual and musical cues to let us know there is a deeper connection between these two stories. When he finally draws them together, the result is both stunning, and yet not entirely convincing. If you stay through the credits, Vallee provides more visual information, but I’m not sure it makes it any clearer – nor is that the purpose. I walked out of Café de Flore with my head spinning – not entirely sure what I had witnessed, or entirely sure how to process it, but knowing that I quite liked it.
The performances in the movie are quite good as well. Kevin Parent, who from what I understand is a singer/songwriter who has never acted before, proves to be a natural as Antoine – torn apart by his decision, but determined to make the best of it, and be happy. As his ex-wife, Helene Florent is even better – angry and bitter, but still in love with the man who has been everything to her for decades. Vanessa Paradis is brittle and increasingly insecure as Jacqueline, who also sees her world slipping away. These three make up the heart of the movie, and do an excellent job.
I hope that Vallee continues to make films like this. I still don’t feel as if he has a made a perfect one, but the skill and the ambition is there for him to do so. Even if he goes back to Hollywood in the future, I hope he retains what it is about his films that make them so special – so uniquely his.