Love, loss and the transformative power of music are the central themes of Café de Flore (2011), Jean-Marc Vallée’s latest directorial outing starring Vanessa Paradis and Kevin Parent. Vallée admirably manages to interweave two stories, encompass two continents and track back and forth between the past and present. First we have the story of Jacqueline (Paradis), a young woman living in one of Paris’ shabbier suburbs in the late 1960s, as she raise Down’s syndrome child Laurent (Marin Gerrier).
In modern day Montreal, Antoine (Parent), an internationally-celebrated DJ, is dealing with the fallout of his divorce from childhood sweetheart Carole (Hélène Florent). During the film’s first half, there is no evident connection between the two narratives except that seven-year-old Laurent and Antoine share a love of music. Antoine has embarked on a passionate relationship with Rose (Evelyn Brochu) and the couple plan to marry, whilst he contends with his own feelings of guilt at leaving his lifelong partner and the disapproval of his family and two daughters. Carole, however, is secretly convinced that Antoine is her soul mate and will eventually come back to her.
On one level, Café de Flore is about confronting our fears and relinquishing our desires, with Vallée reminding us that we cannot control our destinies. When Laurent becomes overly attached to a female classmate, Jacqueline’s attempts to sever the bond ultimately end in tragedy. Jacqueline’s obsessive love for her damaged son is vividly contrasted with Carole’s heart-rending attempts to let go and move on. In her struggle to come to terms with the pain of loss, Carole starts to believe that she has a connection with Jacqueline in a past life.
The film’s central performances are all terrific. Florent perfectly captures Carole’s anguish which is, at times, almost unbearable to watch. Parent impresses as the charismatic, DJ, loved by two women but wrestling with his own demons. Paradis effortlessly conveys a mother’s protective love for her child that verges on the destructive. Elsewhere, Vallée’s editing style is fast and furious, a deluge of cross-cuts suggesting parallel lives, frequent flashbacks, and a deliberate blurring between fantasy and reality. Distorted images reflect the characters’ inner turmoil and the film’s pulsating soundtrack adds an extra layer to the narrative.
Not everyone will engage with Café de Flore’s paranormal denouement and the final scenes tie up the loose ends far too neatly for complete comfort. Yet, despite these flaws, it’s hard not to admire Vallée’s flair and distinctive style of filmmaking.