Café de Flore, the latest film from Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria) is a diverting experience from its outset. An opening title crawl unfolds alongside Pink Floyd’s seminal album-opener Speak To Me/Breathe, and knowing how notoriously picky the band is when licensing their music, if it is good enough for Waters, Gilmour and Co., then it is probably going to be good enough for audiences too. This is a first-rate drama the likes of which rarely abounds; a confidently-composed enigma wrapped in an affectionate, often devastating pair of love stories.
For much of its first act, audiences might feel uncomfortable and confused; this is to be expected and very much part of the the intended experience, one assumes. The initial question seems to be how Antoine’s (Kevin Parent) perfect life – in a relationship with a beautiful woman, Rose (Evelyne Brochu), living in a gorgeous home with his kids and working a fantastic DJ job – could possibly not be enough? Before anymore can be said, Vallée sends us back forty years to meet Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis), a single mother whose son, Laurent (Marin Gerrier), is afflicted by Down syndrome. Her goal is singular; to love her son enough that he might live beyond the 25 years that science says he is limited by.
The use of voice over narration in Café de Flore’s opening segment initially feels disappointing, as though our own engagement with the material is being reduced, even denied, by expository storytelling. Vallée’s approach is, in fact, devilishly clever, doling out the arbitrary details quickly so that we can focus on the picture’s far more compelling philosophical content. The emphasis here is on free-forming through disparate timelines – not only the two parallel storylines, but also Antoine’s past with an ex-wife, Carole (Hélène Florent) – before arriving at a thought-provoking resolution which is fully revealed only in the film’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it final shot.
It is a film intoxicatingly elliptical in style, and no doubt a little disorientating at first, akin perhaps to Terrence Malick’s confounding The Tree of Life, though demonstrating greater emotional warmth and a stronger command of pace. The imagery is similarly fantastic, punctuated by expert editing which helps to visualise feeling and create a consistent tone across the sprawling timespan. For all of its technical prowess, though, it is Vallée’s actors who are his truest weapons, getting the emotional meat hooks sunk into viewers early thanks to an especially riveting turn from Paradis as the overprotective, desperate mother, and the fiercely moving performance by Gerrier as her beleaguered son.
It is a fluid work, lithely sifting through time periods – with occasional title cards guiding us along – and while this will do little to soothe some viewers, it is simply a film better felt than infinitely mined for meaning (though there is plenty of that too). An ethereal and eclectic score, ranging from Sigur Rós, to The Cure and Pink Floyd, buoys the emotional honesty of what is occurring on screen, creating countless moments of sheer cinematic beauty.
The transient nature of love is a key theme throughout, encapsulating the existential angst, often the guilt, felt by these characters. This takes on a surreal, even mystical bent by film’s end, which might go down a little less easy than the more tangible emotional displays. An odd, almost Shining-esque moment during the final credit roll is particularly beguiling, but with its third-act departure, we are able to make sense of why these stories are even juxtaposed in the first place, and of how attachments, no matter whether romantic or familial, are more similar than we know.
A transfixing – some might say cheeky – final shot offers genuine insight into the secrets of Café de Flore, though viewers will need to be eagle-eyed to catch it, and if they don’t, might feel a little short-changed as a result. Still, what is clear is how Vallée favours the catharsis of confrontation, and how sometimes, all it takes is a little communication.
There is tragedy to spare by film’s end, yet Vallée has the good sense to spice things up with occasional moments of levity and uplift, also. Laurent’s young romance with another girl afflicted by Down syndrome is sweet and also mischievously amusing, even if it is ultimately upsetting. However, the sheer nature of the film’s big reveal – without giving it away – manages to transform all the sadness into something audiences will either embrace or detach from entirely, though it acquits itself from accusations of being “cheap”, as some will argue is more than can be said for the conclusion of Malick’s film. Whatever your beliefs, it is an entrancing watch no doubt.
Drama so perfectly wrought is hard to come by. Vallée and his stellar cast have carved out a challenging, emotionally rich film which is not shaken easily.
Café de Flore is on limited release from Friday.