Café de Flore is a film by Jean-Marc Vallée, about love, music, and fate, exploring questions like “does everybody have a soul-mate? What happens when your soul-mate drifts away? Can a person have more than one?”
The narrative follows two seemingly unconnected storylines, separated by time and space, one in 1960s Paris, the other in Montreal, 2011.
The first follows Jacqueline, a single mother raising her young boy Laurent, who has Down Syndrome. Jacqueline is extremely protective of Laurent, and when he meets another girl at school named Vero, who also has DS, he falls in love with her and drifts from his mother. The second revolves around a DJ named Antoine, and his complicated relationships with his ex-wife Carole, his two daughters, and his new girlfriend Rose. Carole struggles to accept that they are no longer together, but she also believes they are soulmates, having been together since they were teenagers.
Liam: I have mixed feelings about this one. I loved almost all the separate parts of the film, but I don’t know if they were all working together.
Let’s start with the pacing. The film has a way of gradually revealing information about the characters, as if to create the impression that there was some mystery lying at its heart that it’s working toward. There is a clear emotional arc for almost every character, but I don’t think whatever revelation occurs by the end really justifies the slow build.
Trista: I also really loved many parts of this film, but I also think the point you make about feeling like they’re building to something that never really pays off it relevant. Half the time it feels like two completely stories that are unconnected, but connected in the larger sense in that it they are both about love in all its forms, then the other half it keeps giving you hints that there is something bigger going on. It’s not consistent. Then when you discover they are intended to be connected, it feels like the film just turns left and goes directly off the rails into a realm of unreality that the rest of the film isn’t set up for.
I really liked it up to that point, since I thought its depiction of the vastly different kinds of love that can exist between people was deeply moving and intensely real, but I felt completely betrayed by the ending.
Liam: Yeah, each of story lines was interesting enough to exist independently of the other. Granted, that would’ve been a different film if they were more separate, but beyond that thematic connection, the deeper metaphysical current running between them seems tacked on.
As for things that are working, I really appreciated the complexity of Antoine’s relationship with Carole and Rose. It’s clear that he loves Rose, but there’s a part of him that may always love Carole, because human relationships are weird like that. I like the way it suggests that if there are such things as soul-mates, it may be possible to have more than one.
Trista: I appreciated that as well. I also appreciated both parental storylines in the Jacqueline and Laurent portion of the story. In both cases neither of the children’s parents were willing to treat their children as overtly different, going well out of their way to ensure their children were treated normally (both by themselves and society). I’m not 100% sure why the storyline needed to include children with Down Syndrome, but I also kind of appreciated that it was there even though it didn’t need to be. I think Vallée showed a great deal of style and intelligence in making that choice.
I also really appreciated how normal looking everyone was. To be perfectly frank, I think that’s the most Canadian thing about the movie. Vanessa Paradis is a beautiful woman, but not traditionally drop dead gorgeous. Same with Evelyne Brochu and Helene Florent. Even Kevin Parent isn’t a traditionally good looking man — no perfect symmetry and washboard abs here. They were all just normal people who fell in love with one another, which makes the whole thing feel closer to home. When you could see yourself as any of those people it adds a layer of reality that I don’t think casting Amanda Seyfried and Justin Timberlake ever could.
Liam: Now I’m imagining Justin Timberlake as Antoine, and it’s making things very strange indeed. It certainly says something about a lot of Canadian films, that you’re going to see people who aren’t necessarily Hollywood beautiful. But the cast is strong, and their performances are what make them striking, and even beautiful in certain moments.
Trista: So let’s talk about the music for a second. I thought that the film used music very well. It was a gorgeous through-line to the two stories (although it seems a little contrived in light of the ending), but I also felt like it was trying for something that only really hardcore music fans would get. Of course, I wouldn’t know what that is because I’m not one of those people, so I definitely felt like I was missing something.
Liam: Yeah, me too. In particular I didn’t understand the parts where Pink Floyd was playing. Good music, sure, but it seemed to be touching on something else that I felt like I might have better understood if I listened to Pink Floyd. I’m sure it’s not supposed to be that esoteric, but I did get that impression. What I did get from it was, that this music means a LOT to the characters in the film. Music is what Carole and Antoine bond over when they’re teenagers, so I liked seeing the way music carries through as this incredibly important thing, even if it’s just evoking past emotions that might no longer hold true anymore.
Trista: True. I also liked that. I also liked that each character really had a theme, and those themes evoked specific emotions in the people around them. I know there are songs I hear that I definitely associate with specific people and hearing them brings back my feelings for them like a hammer. I can’t say for sure that Vallee was relying on most people having that to help engage them, but it worked regardless.
Liam: I was also interested by the way Antoine’s substance abuse issues are touched on frequently, become an obstacle for other characters, and yet never become the main subject. I still can’t decide if that works or not. It makes for a good metaphor for one aspect of love, which is a kind of addiction. But is that fully explored? I’m not sure. Does it need to be, more than it was? Again, not sure.
Trista: That’s a great point. I agree that it’s never really explored, but at the point in the film that relapse into addiction becomes a plot point, it’s also the point at which we discover that things in the film aren’t quite as they seem and that not relapsing will likely ensure things turn out okay. I think your question of whether or not it should have been explored further is also a good one. I’m not sure, really. I think the fact that we’re asking means it wasn’t well buttoned up.
I feel like it should be mentioned how technically brilliant the film is. From the sound and story editing to the cinematography and music supervision, this film is masterfully — and obviously lovingly — crafted.
Liam: Yes! Almost every shot was a pleasure to watch. The transitions from scene to scene and narrative to narrative are fluid, or jarring when they need to be, and on a purely technical level it is a gorgeous film.
Is Café de Flore Essential Canadian Cinema?
Trista: Now, do we think this Essential Canadian Cinema? For my part, despite the slightly weird and supernatural turn things take near the end, I think this film is beautiful and definitely worth watching. I know that it polarized audiences, and I can see why. The film isn’t overtly about either Canada or France, and there’s nothing specifically “Canadian” about it. Despite that, I think the story itself is fundamentally Canadian, and I don’t think it would have been told as well or with such gorgeous style by a filmmaker from any other part of the world. I think this is an example of some of our best filmmaking and, as a result, I do think it’s Essential Canadian Cinema.
Liam: I’m bothered by the turn the plot takes by the end the more I think about it. But the other elements, such as the fluid integration of music and visuals, and the strong performances by just about everyone, are what win me over. I definitely like the fact that there’s nothing overtly Canadian about it. Half the film is set in Montreal, and that’s really all it needs. Filmmakers like Jean-Marc Vallée demonstrate that we don’t always need to try so bloody hard to show our Canadian-ness. It can just be assumed, and we can move on with telling interesting stories. This particular story has a lot of flaws, but it is compelling, and hopefully I’m not contradicting myself too much when I say it is the high caliber of artistry present throughout that makes Café de Flore Essential Canadian Cinema.
The TFS Verdict
So that’s it! Café de Flore becomes the sixth film to be declared Essential Canadian Cinema, joining The Sweet Hereafter, The Dark Hours, Better Than Chocolate, Trigger and New Waterford Girl on that list.
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