I need to thank Marc Saint-Cyr for letting me post this fascinating essay on Café de Flore. - D.D.
Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore is one of those rare, special works of art: a film that perfectly marries the cosmic with the intimate, filtering a concept that transcends the boundaries of time, nationality, and probability through an assortment of stories entrenched in intensely relatable human experiences. As demonstrated by both this film and his earlier masterpiece C.R.A.Z.Y., Vallée understands the anatomy of memory, illuminating with insight and detectable pleasure the roots of those golden moments that linger and resonate within us long after they occur. In such moments, which rarely feel special as they are happening, and which Vallée so skillfully isolates and freezes in cinematic amber, anything could turn out to be the Rosetta Stone that serves as the key to a larger, grander narrative beyond your field of vision in which you only play one part: a specific incident or sequence of events, a song or album, a cryptic word or name, a picture on the wall that contains more than initially meets the eye. Passed down from person to person, weathering the seasons, these artifacts serve as tokens of personal history and testaments to the longevity of memories – whether we are fully aware of it or not. Music serves as an especially potent material for the weaving of these memory maps, as Vallée can attest: in C.R.A.Z.Y. and Café de Flore, he repeatedly uses songs and album covers as sturdy, reliable landmarks dotted across the charts of his characters’ lives that add continuity and meaning to the mysterious, incredible journey of human destiny.
Just as it did in C.R.A.Z.Y., Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon is a reoccurring fixture in Café de Flore’s sonic landscape – specifically Clare Torry’s fantastic, echoing yowl heard in the classic album’s opening track “Speak to Me/Breathe,” created by the band that is by now as much a staple of Vallée’s cinema as the Rolling Stones are of Martin Scorsese’s. Antoine (Kevin Parent), a DJ based in present-day Montreal, loves that particular song, integrating it into his sets and indulging in it by himself through his headphones in order to reach that “special place” that music lovers like him know so well. Antoine’s story involves his relationship with Carole (Hélène Florent), his ex-wife and the mother of their two daughters, and Rose (Evelyne Brochu), the new woman in his life. Antoine and Carole’s romance was born in the post-punk era of Joy Division and the Cure but grew not only in years of affection and tenderness between the two lovers, but also in the shadow of a specter that only loomed longer and darker as time went on: alcohol, as the many bottles of Beefeater Gin that appear in the old photos of them together, always within Antoine’s easy reach, testify. In the present, he is haunted by the crimson-uniformed figure from the bottle label in eerie, blink-and-you-miss-it subliminal flashes – a demon that is always lurking in the peripheries of his life.
The central dilemma Antoine faces stems from the arrival of Rose in his life and the strain it places on both the family he and Carole made together and his faith in the idea of there being just one person out there with whom you are meant to spend the rest of your life. With this premise, Café de Flore straightforwardly adopts a rare philosophical complexity while fiendishly throwing a wrench into the most cherished dream of die-hard romantics everywhere. Having been cheated out of her life with Antoine by Rose and, in a greater sense, fate, Carole soon becomes one of the film’s most sympathetic characters. In her, Vallée and Florent illustrate the cruelty and pain that can come from love, desire, and destiny’s mysterious ways, which Antoine and Carole’s angry oldest daughter keeps bringing back to the surface with her own distress from seeing her father fall for another woman besides her mother. In pure Valléeian fashion, she claims a measure of revenge against her father by deliberately playing the songs associated with their time together, as if her and her sister’s very existence wasn’t a vital enough reminder of his past life with Carole. Music has that power: to summon the pain and glory of the past with an intensity and directness that nothing else can quite manage.
On the same subject of music and past lives, there is the story of Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis), a young woman living in Paris in 1969, and Laurent (Marin Gerrier), her young Down syndrome-afflicted son. For film-savvy folk, their world should be quite familiar, since it is the same place and almost the same time period – it’s close enough for government work – that Truffaut, Godard, Varda, Rohmer, and the rest chronicled so well in their day with their tales of records, cafés, cigarettes, boulangeries, young love, and the movies. But Vallée doesn’t take the bait and sacrifice any measure of his story in favor of yet another homage-laden jaunt into Newwaveland (which he previously evoked with his memorable inclusion of Charles Aznavour amongst C.R.A.Z.Y.’s musical delights). And thank goodness for that – as nice as it is to be back in the milieu of Breathless, Cléo from 5 to 7, and The Bakery Girl of Monceau, this is strictly Jacqueline and Laurent’s story, and by keeping his focus on them and their experiences, Vallée expresses a sincerity and authenticity that, beyond their cinematic allure, were what the finest New Wave films were all about. After all, to paraphrase a famous quote from Jules Dassin’s The Naked City, there are more than eight million stories in the City of Light; the story of Michel the car thief and his American girlfriend Patricia was one, the story of Antoine Doinel was another, and the story of Jacqueline and Laurent is simply another. It primarily concerns the incredible strength and beauty of parenthood, which is manifested in the pure, unwavering devotion Jacqueline pledges to her son as she tries her very best to ensure that he receives a “normal” education – one without segregation or special treatment. Despite the daunting nature of her goal, she successfully manages to provide Laurent with a life of safety, happiness, and routine. Together, they create their own secret language made up of private, affectionate rituals only they know – a language of absolute fondness. But soon a new challenge arises with the appearance of Véro (Alice Dubois), a little girl Laurent’s age who also has Down syndrome. A new bond of love, fresh and intense, is formed between the two, sending Jacqueline into a maelstrom of anguish, jealousy, and pain at the thought of losing her soul mate to another. Sound familiar? “Speak to Me/Breathe” may be the Pink Floyd song that is heard again and again in the film, but “Echoes” from 1971’s Meddle perhaps would have been a better thematic fit – though on top of the less subtle devices that Vallée uses to link his two narrative threads together, including ominous reoccurring dreams and a psychic whom Carole visits to try to decipher their meaning, him sampling the prog epic might have fatally tipped the film’s scales from helpful clarity to blunt hand-holding.
But even with the abovementioned elements in play, Café de Flore is by any reliable measure a brave work crafted with great subtlety and sophistication. Some of its mysteries take longer to develop than others, some of them remaining shrouded in the kind of ambiguity that rewards multiple viewings, prolonged contemplation, and in-depth discussion. From the repeated image of the plane carrying Antoine perfectly aligned with the bright white ball of the sun against a pristine blue sky right before it disappears in a sudden blip of orange to the numerous split-second appearances of the sinister Beefeater man to the special significance of a song called “Café de Flore” to both Laurent and Antoine in their respective time periods, the film is littered with countless clues, signs, and omens that form a shattered mosaic depicting its characters’ destinies and bonds with one another. As a viewer, you are given the task and pleasure of putting the pieces together to try and bring into sharper focus the twisting, turning, intersecting trajectories of these people’s lives. In this way, Café de Flore exemplifies one of the most satisfying traditions of art house cinema – the kind that engages and entertains its viewers in the same way a smart, well-designed game would its ready players.
In its refreshingly nuanced portrayal of lovers, parents, and children, Café de Flore achieves a rare universal sweep that makes you more deeply aware and appreciative of the various roles you play throughout your life as well as the place you occupy in the labyrinthine narrative of history – which perhaps bears more commonalities and connections across generations than anyone realizes. As I write this, I’m thinking of the scar on the ring finger of my left hand that came from an injury I got many years ago while listening to – you guessed it – The Dark Side of the Moon while riding my bike a little too fast and a little too recklessly. Will there be someone else, born many years from now, who will one day bear a scar that looks exactly like mine in exactly the same place? Was there someone born decades before I was in some other part of the world who bore such a scar? Which albums did/will they count among their favorites? More importantly, did/will either of these hypothetical people ever have relationships that resemble any of the ones I currently have with the people I love? After seeing Café de Flore, not only am I more likely to wholeheartedly place my faith in the likelihood of such things, but also, more importantly, I am more determined to cherish the bonds that connect me to those few special people in my life. In whatever time period or incarnation, such bonds should be treasured while they are intact and unharmed by the forces of fate, time, and death; thankfully, we have films like Café de Flore to remind us of that every now and then.