French Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée explores the effect of music on memory and experience in beautiful and complex psychodrama, Café de Flore. Also editor and screenwriter for the film, Vallée has created a fractured and subjective world view which is confusing at times, but which also tells a moving story by letting a combination of images and music prevail over speech.
In present day Montreal, popular DJ Antoine (Kevin Parent) has left his childhood sweetheart and wife of twenty years Carole (Hélène Florent) and their two daughters to form a new relationship with Rose (Evelyn Brochu). Meanwhile, in 1969 Paris, Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) is single-handedly raising her six year-old son Laurent (Martin Gerrier), who has Down Syndrome. Determined not to put him in an institution, she sends him to a non-specialised school; however, trouble starts when he develops a childish crush on a classmate who also suffers from Downs.
Back in the present day, Carole is having trouble dealing with her separation from Antoine; she sleepwalks and has nightmares and hallucinations about a small boy with Down Syndrome. She starts to suspect that some kind of reincarnation has occurred and goes to see a medium in the hope that it will help her understand the true nature of her relationship with Antoine.
Music plays a hugely important part in this film; the titular song, Café de Flore (written by British electro musician Matthew Herbert) connects the two time strands together and punctuates the most crucial life events of the characters. Songs by The Cure and Pink Floyd also feature heavily, and are used to illustrate the part that music plays in memory, particularly with regard to relationships; certain songs are off limits, while others are safe havens (like Café de Flore).
The importance of memory is further emphasised by the director’s style of editing. The fractured, almost montage style is indicative of the minds and memories of the various characters and is a valiant attempt at true cinema ‘language’. Because the film is almost entirely made up of flashbacks and memories, it seems almost as though the story is being told backwards, which is an interesting narrative technique (if confusing at times).
Because the viewer is forced to constantly change their idea of what they are seeing as the backstory is revealed, it can be a little difficult to keep up with developments. Many will be willing to come to terms with the fact that nothing is spoon-fed in Café de Flore, but perhaps just as many (if not more) will come away confused and even exasperated by the complex structure.
Still, even viewers put off by the unusual editing style will be impressed by the acting partnership of Vanessa Paradis and Martin Gerrier, who steal the show with their portrayal of Jacqueline, a single mother trying to create a loving and functional family life, and Laurent, her happy but disabled little boy. The two react perfectly together onscreen, giving a great impression of a real mother/child relationship challenged by Laurent’s condition and the prejudicial atmosphere of the sixties.
The story of Café de Flore is challenging and unashamedly emotional. However, one is left with the distinct feeling that by combining the two time strands using the admittedly flimsy ‘reincarnation’ connection, Vallée has bitten off a little more than he can chew. The different yet connected stories taking place in the present and in the sixties both possess enough strength to stand on their own as separate films (particularly the story from the sixties).
By combining the two, Vallée was clearly attempting to make some sort of a statement about memory, relationships and love. But, in the end, it’s all just a little bit too over the top and the ending is mawkishly mushy (although the final shot, a photograph which somehow manages to contain all the main characters from both timelines, is admittedly pretty great).
Overall, Café de Flore is a moving, dreamlike film whose complex and intriguing take on human relationships is marred by a slightly clumsy exploration of reincarnation, and an overly complicated narrative style. This film is a haunting effort from Vallée, and will undoubtedly engage the interests of many viewers, but is unlikely to cause much of a critical stir.
Best scene: The final shot.
Best line: Antoine: ‘If it’s a soul mate, it’s not supposed to end, right? It doesn’t happen twice in a lifetime’.