I almost don’t want to tell you anything about this movie.
In a perfect world, you, dear reader, would simply trust me, and go and see this film based purely on me telling you to go and see this film. But, you don’t know me, at least not yet, and so I don’t blame you for the lack of trust between us, the doubt you might have at being told simply, this film is excellent, and you should see it.
So, if it helps at all, in case you have more trust in him than you do in me, which would make sense because you probably know him and you probably don’t know me, George Stroumboulopoulos named this film as one of his top 5 of 2011. Since George is my boyfriend, as he has been telling me each weeknight for several years now, I know him, and I trust him as an arbiter of taste (which I think is George’s greatest talent), and based purely on this film’s appearance on George’s top 5 list, I decided to go and check it out. I knew practically nothing about it going in, except that it is a Canadian French-language film, and that it stars Vanessa Paradis, partner to hunky pirate impersonator Johnny Depp.
And, dear reader, that is the kind of experience I want for you to have with this film. I want for you to discover it in the same way I did, not having expectations that can either be met or not met. It was such a beautiful experience to encounter this film in the way I encountered it, that I wish the same kind of experience for you.
So, if you feel adventurous, stop reading here, and go buy your tickets.
For the skeptics among us, here’s a bit more information. Beware, however: I’m still going to tell you as little about it as possible for a film critic to tell you in a review.
Café de Flore tells parallel stories, one in present-day Montréal, and one in 1969 Paris. In Montréal, we focus on Antoine (Kevin Parent), Carole (Hélène Florent), and Rose (Evelyne Brochu). Antoine has left Carole for Rose. Carole is miserable. Antoine is happy with Rose, but feels terribly that Carole cannot move on. And he misses her and their life together, although there is no question of returning to her. His family and their friends are not receptive to Rose, and idolize Carole. But overall, Antoine is happy.
In Paris, we focus on Jacqueline (Paradis) and her son, Laurent. Laurent has Downs Syndrome. Jacqueline has sacrificed and worked very hard to give Laurent a life in which he can flourish and be as “normal” as possible. She sees this as her purpose in life. We don’t figure out until past the mid-way point of the movie, but these stories are related. It isn’t obvious how until quite near the end, and there’s a great deal of suspense leading up to the resolution of these stories.
One thing Café de Flore does beautifully is music. Antoine is a DJ, and music is an enormous part of his life. It is also a huge part of the movie, helping us move more seamlessly throughout the various narratives and storylines. The use of music here is haunting, comical and moving.
Another thing that is very well done is the photography and direction. Café de Flore was directed by Jean-Marc Valleé, who also directed C.R.A.Z.Y., one of Quebec’s most popular and well-received films. Not one to shy away from challenging and unconventional stories, Valleé has done a beautiful job here. The direction is gorgeous, full of haunting, beautifully understated moments of increasing intensity and pitch. Valleé is a master of foreshadowing so subtle you only see it in retrospect, where everything becomes clear and obvious. There are some beautiful visuals as well, in particular a gorgeous underwater scene that is just a pleasure to look at.
There are some things the movie does less well. For one, the film is narrated at the beginning, and that narration does not continue throughout, but wraps up once each storyline is set up. It isn’t all that noticeable or bothersome, but it is an inconsistency. Also, it could be made a bit more clear to the audience what is going on with Carole, without coming right out and telling us. I like for films to show me things, not tell me things, and since the foreshadowing was really quite well done in this film overall, I felt like this could also have been done better. Waiting for the two storylines to gel might irritate some viewers; this wasn’t a problem for me, as I was pretty fascinated with both storylines and would have been OK with them never merging and only being thematically or tangentially related. Also, the back-story on Antoine and Rose’s relationship, and Antoine and Carole’s, was told through flashbacks, and made for almost a third storyline. I didn’t find this particularly disjointed, but for some viewers keeping track of several ongoing, non-linear narratives can be confusing.
Café de Flore is about love. It is also about jealousy, and loss, and redemption. It is about being responsible, being thoughtful, breaking out of harmful patterns, gaining clarity. It is about growing up, and it is about growing out. It is about who we love, and why we love them. It is about who we are, and why we are who we are, and how we can maybe be different. That’s a lot, right? I know. It is a lot. But it achieves all of this, and probably more. Just go and see it, while you can.