Love makes the world go round, but it can also turn your universe inside out. That much is clear in French-Canadian writer-director Jean-Marc Vallée’s time-skipping drama, which fuses passionate emotions with ecstatic filmmaking to startling effect.
In the present, star Québécois DJ Antoine (Kevin Parent) is finding love the second time around with blonde goddess Rose (Evelyne Brochu). Yet he’s troubled by the knowledge that his first wife, Carole (Hélène Florent) – the childhood sweetheart who essentially shaped his entire being – has fallen to pieces since he left her. Meanwhile, in late ’60s Paris, single mum Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) struggles her hardest every single day to raise her Down’s syndrome son, Laurent (Marin Gerrier), shaping an intense bond between mother and child…which will soon be put to the test.
Thanks to heart-rending turns from Paradis and the frankly amazing young Gerrier, the period narrative is the more compelling of the two. In contrast, the somewhat closed-off character of Antoine is harder to read, presumably because he doesn’t yet understand himself, escaping into music as a way of easing the painful fallout from his romantic choices: Pink Floyd and Sigur Rós feature heavily, while the title refers to a club track heard at significant moments.
Still, as we flit back into Antoine’s past, glimpsing the contours of his long, formative relationship with his troubled ex, the extent of her loss comes into focus and with it hints of a connection to the travails of the embattled Paradis. Indeed, it’s in the spaces between the two storylines that ‘Café de Flore’ comes alive. Vallée makes the brave decision to keep us guessing as to the precise nature of the link between the decades-apart threads, instead dropping tantalising hints via bravura editing and mise-en-scène which pull us into a cinematic vortex blurring the lines between time and memory, perception and emotion.
This from the guy whose last film was 2009’s anodyne ‘The Young Victoria’! ‘Café de Flore’ is intoxicating, romantic, pretty damn mad, and it just doesn’t care. There are all sorts of questions to be asked about the final reel, which (to say the least) demands a massive leap of faith from the viewer, but whether or not you buy it, it’s hard not to be thrilled by a movie which takes risks and sticks to its own out-there logic.
With one fell swoop, Vallée – who first broke through with the cracked family drama ‘C.R.A.Z.Y.’ (2005) – joins the ranks of lovably wilful celluloid mavericks such as Jean-Jacques Beineix, Léos Carax or even Andrzej Zulawski (in his tamer moments) and it’s good they have some new company. Whatever its flaws, in the moment this is one to set the film-lover’s pulse racing.