Stars: Vanessa Paradis, Kevin Parent, Hélène Florent, Evelyne Brochu, Marin Gerrier and Alice Dubois.
Writer/Director: Jean-Marc Vallée.
Freeing himself from the corseted constraints of his last film, Young Victoria, French-Canadian auteur Jean-Marc Vallée positively soars with his ambitious study of the love eternal, Cafe de Flore. Drawing soulful, naturalistic performances from a superb cast, none more so than adolescent Down Syndrome sufferers Marin Gerrier and Alice Dubois, Vallée has crafted a complex tableau of glimpsed memories, life-defining moments and spiritual connections that will bring the attentive viewer to tears.
Spanning decades in its dual-narrative, we are first privy to the seemingly contented existence of forty-something Antoine (Kevin Parent), a successful DJ rebuilding his relationship with his teenage children after leaving his wife Carol (Hélène Florent) for younger blonde beauty, Rose (Evelyne Brochu). Though his life is superficially satisfying (he travels for his work; he has sex with Rose a lot), he is also too often alone and struggles with the guilt associated with the overwhelming desire that led him into Rose’s arms and away from his children.
Concurrently, we meet Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis), a struggling single-mother in Paris, circa 1969. She is raising Laurent, a spirited Down Syndrome boy (Gerrier) entering his teenage years and becoming obsessed with a new love, his equally-smitten classmate Véronique (Dubois). The children’s love is innocent, pure and unrestrained – a development that neither Jacqueline nor the girl’s upper-class parents (Caroline Bal, Nicolas Marié) are prepared for.
Vallée's work is a grand vision, his intent being to meld two seemingly unrelated story threads involving a half-dozen familiar character types into a universal definition of love in all its forms. The assuredness he exhibits in his exploration of these themes, and the confidence he displays in his audience to go with him on the different journeys, is remarkable. Rarely has a contemporary film-maker afforded each frame of their film such rich value; split-second edits that offer glimpses into the bond that the two storylines share help create a cinematic puzzle that ultimately explodes with emotion. For those in tune with his storytelling, Vallée’s final 10 minutes will leave you stunned.
In a cast that offers profoundly good work, it is Florent as the broadminded and forgiving abandoned wife that steadies the film when it needs it most. As Antoine, Parent (by the director’s own admission, a thinly-veiled representation of himself) ably conveys the confusion often faced by men at the midway point in their lives; Brochu, entirely captivating, is fire and ice as Rose. A dance sequence in which she leads partygoers in a spontaneous group-grind to Elisapie Isaac’s haunting song, Navvaatara, has the required effect on both Antoine and male viewers.
The scene also highlights Vallee’s sublime use of music and, more precisely, the rhythmic beats of these people’s lives as conveyed by his editing and scene-structure. Inspired by the titular song, Cafe de Flore envelopes its audience with an almost hallucinatory collection of audio tracks, indicating that all of Valle’s years as a nightclub disc-spinner has done nothing to lessen his aural acuity.
Cynics who begin to roll their eyes at the ‘past-lives/soulmates’ angle may not last the distance, which would be a shame, as Cafe de Flore is not a supernatural tear-jerker ala Ghost or Field of Dreams. Rather, it is an epic film of small moments, filled with simple intimacies that resonate to the core of what makes us human. It is a beautiful, accessible work of romantic film artistry.