In present-day Montreal, globetrotting DJ Antoine (Kevin Parent) is two years into a passionate relationship with Rose (Evelyn Brochu), having left life-long partner Carole (Hélène Florent) and their daughters. Meanwhile, in a grimy 1969 Paris, cash-strapped Jacqueline (Vanassa Paradis) single-handedly raises her seven-year-old Down Syndrome son Laurent (Marin Gerrier). She places him in a non-specialised school, where Laurent succumbs to a powerful case of puppy love. Jacqueline's struggles to cope with this development are recalled by Carole in her dreams.
Playful, painful, willfully strange, deeply emotional and deliberately, delightfully obscure at times, Café de Flore, from French-Canadian writer-director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.), is a puzzle-film par excellence.
Watching it you can become momentarily confused and frustrated, unsure of why and where you are, yet the experience of the film is so sensuous and the characters so vivid and authentic it really doesn’t matter. Like a badly tuned radio receiver, the way it transmits its information is only sometimes loud and clear.
Eventually, Vallée keys the film’s different 'channels’ of narrative and arranges his story so that it finally appears as an elegant design. It’s important to emphasise that Vallée’s style is no gimmick; he’s playing with our perceptions because his character’s own grip on their day-to-day experience is tenuous.
Its very form – where we jump back and forwards in time, confusing characters, lovers, allegiances, marriages – seems intended to reflect the way our memories and emotions are confused by our desires, needs, and our own personal and private obsessions. It’s a film about memory and loss, and the ties that bind but rarely bond.
The film offers a split narrative. One concerns fortysomething DJ Antoine (Kevin Parent), who is set up as a 'perfect’ family man. He has two daughters (Joanny Corbeil-Picher, Rosalie Fortier) and a lover, Rose (Evelyne Brochu), who, as the movie opens, we assume is his young wife. Later we find out that Antoine left dark-haired Carole (Helene Florent), his actual wife, for Rose, and Carole is devastated. Her grief manifests itself in apparitions, nightmares, and dreams; she sleepwalks, takes pharmaceuticals and waits for Antoine to come to his senses. This storyline is shot in a conventional and perhaps 'fashionable’ indie-style; camera often hand-held, subjective framing, soft-light, real locations, with a sound design keyed to the subjective experience of the main characters. It’s like, in other words, we’re trapped inside their heads and experience.
The other storyline seems to have absolutely nothing to do with Antonie’s world, his past or anyone in his life at all, and besides its 'straightforward’ design and shooting style, is in stark contrast with the modern narrative.
In late '60s Paris, Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) raises her Down syndrome boy, Laurent (Marin Gerrier), as a single mother. She is obsessively devoted to the boy. When Laurent finds a girlfriend at school, a little blond beauty with Down syndrome called Véro (Alice Dubois), Jacqueline reacts with spite, fear, and outrage. She is, in other words, madly jealous and whenever she can, tries to 'get between’ Laurent and his 'soul mate’.
Since cinema schools us to assume that all characters, situations, and plot points ought to be, should be, 'paid off’ with comforting resolutions, Vallée’s duel plots that seem to be completely independent of one another ought to be enough to drive some viewers crazy. Still, there is a connection between the Antoine/Claire/Rose yarn and Jacqueline’s struggle. And when it’s finally revealed, it’s moving and powerful and it makes perfect emotional sense and – it’s not giving anything away here – it comes out of faith, and hope for something that transcends our pain.
In a way, Café de Flore is a musical film (though certainly not a musical). Much of its emotional kick derives from the way Vallée uses songs, fragments of tunes, even certain instruments to trigger a narrative shift or a character’s conscious memory; Pink Floyd’s 'Breathe’ from The Dark Side of the Moon and Iceland’s Sigur Ros’ spacey 'Svefn-g-englar’ have important moments here, but it’s Doctor Rockit’s 'Café de Flore’ that has the richest emotional resonance for the characters. (It’s heard in its original incarnation too.) Vallée’s movie is like music; it is heart thing not a head thing. It suggests sometimes it’s good to stop making sense, and just feel.