Twisting through two love stories in Sixties’ Paris and modern Montreal, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore is a devastating tornado of story and image.
Crazy In Love by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The Café de Flore on the Boulevard St Germain was the cosy hangout and writing spot of Parisian intellectuals Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as many other post-war philosophers. But the birth of existentialism isn’t what Jean-Marc Vallée’s film is all about. Instead, it’s inspired by Matthew Herbert’s 2001 tune Café de Flore. Alternatively known as Herbert or Dr Rockit, Matthew Herbert symbolises a schizophrenia deep-rooted within the core of Jean-Marc Vallée’s own Café de Flore. Herbert’s accordion-based melody is retrofitted to 1969 as a big band swing number, an opiate to schoolboy Laurent and his mother Jacqueline trapped in their tiny Parisian chambre de bonne while Dr Rockit’s more electro-infused track is championed by Antoine in 2011, a globe-trotting DJ from Montreal. It’s only fitting then that the film Café de Flore, as neatly explained in voice-over, is made up of the stories of Antoine and Laurent – a 40-year old man with both the possibility of happiness and the lucidity to recognise it, and an 11-year-old boy with Down syndrome who has every reason to be unhappy, only he doesn’t know it yet.
While the curiously unidentified narration forces the unanswered question of whose story Café de Flore really is, this dichotomy of happiness and lucidity fades away without a second glance, only to be overtaken by mothers, ex-wives and star-crossed soulmates. Laurent may not yet realise his father’s rejection, his grimy poverty or his below-average life expectancy, but his mother Jacqueline surely does. And Vanessa Paradis, as Laurent’s obsessive mother, gives a performance as good as her suicidal knife-thrower’s assistant in Patrice Leconte’s La Fille Sur Le Pont. Together, they float paper boats down grimy boulevard gutters and dance to Café de Flore, Jacqueline a whirlwind of maternal love, playfully waving goodbye to Laurent through the school’s courtyard door with a repetitiveness destined to be broken. She protects him from unkind eyes on the metro and screams for him, appalled by his slim chance of reaching the age of love, pumping him full of vitamins and boxing lessons, and breastfeeding him until the age of four. It’s a quietly charming and almost daring story, of a mother and son against the world, where wounding whispers echo and the real world is kept at bay with a delightful pantomime of discipline – Jacqueline praising Laurent for swearing at a classmate while making a great show of telling him off.
Frenetically interweaved with this Parisian parallel life is jet-setter Antoine, a healthy, successful musician and a happily married father. The threads connecting the two stories are sutured together with heavy breathing, visions of planes flying towards the sun and a disquieting thrum, all of which lend an uneasy foreboding to the film’s progression. Thematically, there’s also an odd correlation, as a long take reveals a group of schoolchildren with Down syndrome arriving at an airport as Antoine, wiping away a tear, heads through Departures into a cinematic blur. This against-the-tide sequence recurs again as Jacqueline leaves church against a wave of approaching women, but it’s unclear in the crush of images if the parallel is meaningful or simply decorative.
An older incarnation of C.R.A.Z.Y‘s Zac, Antoine is another of Vallée’s confused musophiles. His would-be existentialist “What the fuck am I doing here?” in his London hotel room stinks of midlife crisis – guilty love and a family break-up in place of the identity trauma of adolescence. But Antoine is haunted by doubts too, his confusion echoed in competing visions of Carole and Rose dancing for him at a party in a kind of oneiric flashmob. And musing over life’s playlist, Antoine tries to control his emotions through carefully selected tracks. Music even takes on a dramatic purpose in his signature flatlining, cutting the sound to give his DJ sets more punch. It’s a baton dropped by Vallée though and the film’s musical philosophy, like the visions of gin-bottle-inspired Royal Guards, are haunting but inconsequential. Instead, it’s his new romance with Rose which drives the story. And while Antoine is troubled by the idea of finding a second soulmate, Rose and Antoine’s love is tinged with a sense of misfortune, that they’re no good for each other and on a collision course with drugs, destiny and death.
Rose and Antoine are however meant to be together, just like Laurent and Véro. Only it’s a dangerous love, a relived repetition of its Sixties precursor. Punctuated by Carole’s nocturnal screams, Café de Flore is above all an exploration of fatality and of love written in the stars. Vallée tips his fedora to Kieslowski with his final sequence, zooming in on Antoine’s parents’ holiday snap to reveal Jacqueline, Laurent and Véro waving from the quayside below Notre Dame cathedral. The Parisian stairwell design which finds itself reincarnated as tattoos on Carole and Antoine is perhaps more The Da Vinci Code than The Double Life Of Véronique, but the influence is clear enough from Véro’s diminutive by-name. It’s perhaps a shame the only witness to this twist of fate is the camera, the abyss they’re tottering round only ever clear to Carole, who is finally able to make sense of her dreams of a young boy with Down syndrome screaming in the back of her car when she visits a medium and understands her past life.
Rather than his twin flame, Carole is Antoine’s mother-figure. And the intensity of Carole’s love for Antoine is just the same as Jacqueline’s for Laurent – jealously attempting to make him forget his soulmate by faking a burglary in their flat and hiding away the now sullied Café de Flore LP. And while the yoga-practising and blithely optimistic Carole may not have Jacqueline’s crazed edge – it’s hard to believe she would kill herself and the two young lovers in a car crash like Jacqueline, she nevertheless apologises to Antoine for it in the present, finally able to accept her role in his life and their divorce.
Filled to the gills with a cacophony of image and story, Café de Flore leaves many a thread untied. Like The Tree Of Life, its narrative builds from a kaleidoscope of short sequences where both everything is significant and nothing. Dialogue stretches from one timeline to the other, its jumpy editing creating a dramatic pace which never quite pays off. There’s an enjoyable tension of impending catastrophe throughout, but its twin engines of parallel lives and soulmates on trial don’t so much fire off as dissolve into a bathetic diegetic soup. It’s a visual feast, with great performances from Kevin Parent, Vanessa Paradis, Hélène Florent and the fabulous Marin Gerrier. And while its wilful disorientation is both intensely enjoyable and simultaneously frustrating, Café de Flore is likely to keep you reeling well beyond the final reel.
Café de Flore is released on 11th May 2012 in the UK