“It all started with a song.”
Jean-Marc Vallée understands the romantic significance of this statement. He knows that many great explorations of love, both on film and in life, have begun exactly that way. His latest directorial effort, Café de Flore, is one of cinema's finest meditations on our deepest emotion in some time.
“It was the melody of 'Café de Flore', played with an accordion,” he tells SBS Film from his home in Quebec. “I listened to it for three years and I kept saying to myself, 'One day, I'll make a film of this track.'” The song's allure was as indefinable to Vallée as his film has been to many who have experienced it. “I didn't know why, or what structure it would take, but I knew it was going to happen.”
The 49-year-old filmmaker made one of Canada's biggest hits in recent memory, the coming-of-age tale C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), then rode the associated buzz into the warmly-received period piece, The Young Victoria (2009). “I was coming from Young Victoria, which was very classic, very traditional, so I wrote a film that allowed me to treat myself, to explore, to try something new,” he says. “It was a daring project, with locations in Montreal and Paris, and full of rock music. I wouldn't say it was easy to make this film but we were lucky to get finance. People were scared of the project but they also realised that it was a special project that they wanted to see, to be part of. There was good intentions, a great desire, from all involved to make this film happen.”
Vallée understood the daunting scale of the themes he was exploring, of the universality of love in all its manifestations. His film ultimately touches on the immortality of the soul and a belief in the existence of soulmates, imbuing Café de Flore with an existential resonance beyond the conventions of a mere love story. “I wanted to tell a story bigger than life, almost like a fable,” he admits, “and I wanted to tell a beautiful, epic love story and do that by creating a different cinema experience.”
It was a vision that was very clear to him from early on in the writing process. “I wrote myself a story that I was cutting on the page,” he explains. “I very much saw myself as the 'Filmmaker', not only the writer but also the director, there on the set, and also in the cutting room, so I [began by] using words and sentences and paragraphs to first create that cinema experience.”
When pressed, he claims as little as “15%, maybe 20%” of the film was formulated in post-production, citing one of French cinema's elder statesmen as an inspiration. “I, myself, once asked the great Bertrand Blier the same question about his film Merci la vie!” he laughs. “'Did you write this or did you become all creative in the cutting room?' The editing is so wild and bizarre and I thought, 'He couldn't have thought this when he was writing it'. Blier said, 'I wrote most of it.'”
Vallée's own past life as a dance-mix DJ, stemming from a lifelong love of music, has been deeply influential in his directorial career. That Café de Flore should be inspired by a song (and have a forty-something nightclub DJ as its key protagonist) is fitting but barely scraps the surface of the meaning that music has in Vallée's work and life. “I love music so much, I have such a special relationship with music, such a connection, and I receive so much from it, that when I look back on my films, I see that I am consciously trying to give back what I receive from my music.” For the next several minutes, he adds layer upon layer about the synergy that exists between his passion for music and his film work, how his films “all honour his rock & roll heroes, like Degolas and The Cure and Pink Floyd and Matthew Herbert," and how music “makes him dream”. He pauses, and refocusses with a breath. “Particularly with this film, I was trying to capture the essence, this thing that we have with music that makes us want to live and love and make love and project and be creative and be wild and say 'fuck it'. I understand [when asked] if I am trying to be like a DJ with this film, cutting and spinning the imagery and ultimately blending five different lives.” Despite having just spent considerable time trying, Vallée says, “It's just not easy to explain, even to talk about. Even today, I look at the film and I go 'Did I succeed? Does it work with what I was trying to do with the music?' I'm not sure but, I think, it does a lot.”
Vallée is adamant that the film does not reflect a personal philosophical belief. “Audiences can choose if the film is about reincarnation and past lives, if that's what they believe, which I don't,” he says. “Or they can believe that the film has come from within a character's imagination. I wanted to give the audience those choices.”
There can be no denying, however, that it was a shoot that asked for a great deal of personal introspection on the director's part. As well as the deep bond he developed with young cast members Marin Gerrier and Alice Dubois, both afflicted with Down syndrome (“When you accept them into your life, they become your life”), Vallée directs his own son Emile in some deeply personal scenes. And mid-shoot, Vallee's elderly mother passed away.
“I don't want to make films of my life,” he emphasises, “but on an emotional level, this was very close. Everybody who worked on the film could see that and appreciate that. They could see that I was trying to be honest and authentic and genuine with the process. I'm a romantic guy, just like the character in the film, and I knew I had an emotional film.”
Café de Flore is released in cinemas April 25.