If you’ve taken the metro since the beginning of the semester – especially the orange line – you might remember the posters displayed at every other station advertising Quebec filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée’s most recent drama, Café de Flore.
The film relates two distant tales: that of Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis), a headstrong and passionate mother, and Laurent (Lucas Bonin), her down syndrome afflicted son. Set in 1969 Paris, Jacqueline battles against the statistics that limit Laurent’s life expectancy to 25 years. Fast forwarding four decades, the film then transports us to present-day Montreal where Antoine (Kevin Parent), a successful DJ and father of two is in the midst of divorcing his first – and what he once believed to be his last – love. The film progresses by showing us how these two ostensibly distant scenarios – in time as well as in place – converge and relate to one another. It shows us, in essence, how Jacqueline and Laurent’s past permeates the present and unfolds into the life of Antoine’s family.
Vallée’s successful career took off with the highly acclaimed box office hit C.R.A.Z.Y in 2005 and continued to gain momentum with the generally well-received period piece The Young Victoria in 2009. Unlike the linear plots and biographical style of these earlier films, Café de Flore stands apart as a more surrealist work. The fragmented narrative jarringly shifts between 1969 Paris and present-day Montreal throughout the film.
The film’s style veers towards the edgy realism characteristic of Vallée’s work. His previous two films counteract the lull of realism through the use of first-person narration, non–diagetic sounds, technical lighting (C.R.A.Z.Y), and a yellowish tint to connote historicity (The Young Victoria). In comparison, Café cuts through its raw realism with savvy but subtle editing techniques that enhance the film’s surreal undertone. In Café, Vallée forgoes linearity to present us with a jumbled sequence of events, aiming to merge the past with the present, and future. As the narrative unfolds, the characters rebelliously insist on looking backwards – by remembering, retelling, and reliving remnants of their past while feeling, at the same time, a necessary pull towards the future.
As Antoine tells his therapist in an early scene, he can’t help but feel that, despite his current happiness, he has, “fucked things up.” He feels compelled to move away from the life he’s known for twenty years, but is guilt-tripped into not doing so by memories of his ex-wife and the memories they shared. Similarly, Jacqueline resents the disruption of her intimate world with Laurent brought on by Laurent’s new friend, and seeks passionately to restore things to the way they were.
Especially after the release of C.R.A.Z.Y, which garnered an unprecedented amount of positive attention, Vallée was largely responsible for intiating the international and commercial recognition of the Quebec film industry, and paved the way for directors like Denys Arcand and Denis Villeneuve, who directed the film Polytechnique. While these directors situate their stories in Quebec, many of the past decade’s films made by Quebeckers address topics and issues that move beyond the local scene.
Moreover, collaboration with international filmmakers has become increasingly common, as The Young Victoria and Café have demonstrated. Award–winning names like screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), Graham King (The Departed), and Martin Scorsese approached Vallée for Young Victoria, while Café features the famous French model and actress Paradis as one of its main – and arguably most memorable – characters. The very fact that half the film takes place in France and was co-produced with a French production company – (Monkey Pack Films) – raises the question of the film’s national identification – namely, is it exclusively in a Quebec context? Not quite, most would probably conclude. Yet, raising this question about a film industry that sought, from its earliest days, to distinguish itself culturally and linguistically from the rest of the world, demonstrates just how far along the industry has progressed from its separatist origins. Perhaps Café can be said to illustrate this progression, one that is desired, necessary, even inevitable, but that is also irrevocably intertwined with its past and cannot exist without it.
As one IMDB reviewer rightfully pointed out, Café de Flore might not be for everyone. Its raw tell-it-like-it-is portrayal of life feels depressing and hopeless at moments, and Vallée’s stunning cinematography can be under-appreciated by those more accustomed to the formulaic narratives and techniques of mainstream cinema. What one cannot deny, however, is the effect that the film has on its audience. Whether we agree with the character’s choices, or whether film seems relevant, we cannot but help feel the movie. We feel emotionally connected to the characters, regardless of our position for or against them. The emotional response that the film effortlessly elicits from us is what makes Café de Flore worth watching.