Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Vanessa Paradis, Kevin Parent and Hélène Florent
Release: May 11th
It’s been a good decade for French-Canadian cinema. After films like Les Invasions Barbares, Incendies, and last year’s Monsieur Lazhar, there’s talk of a cinematic renaissance. Jean-Marc Vallée’s 2005 film C.R.A.Z.Y garnered almost unanimous critical approval, and with Café de Flore Vallée looks to be aiming to add another film to this growing cannon of quality.
Café de Flore comprises two parallel narratives, one set in late ’60s Paris and the other in contemporary Montreal. In the latter, Kevin Parent plays Antoine Godin, a DJ who has recently left his wife for another woman. Convinced that the couple will reunite, his ex-wife Carole is tortured by strange nightmares. The other plot has Vanessa Paradis as an overprotective single mother who is struggling against both society’s prejudices against her Down’s Syndrome son, Laurent, and his own willful nature. Antoine and Laurent share an obsession with the ‘Café de Flore’ of the title, a Matthew Herbert tune that, by means of this obsession, goes a way towards linking the plots.
The autobiographical C.R.A.Z.Y was an enormous critical success, and Café shares more than a few of its better qualities – once again there’s an effective exploration of the mixed emotions that bind parent and child, and of the collision of the mystical with the grimy everyday. Mid-tempo classic rock accompanies the many fast-paced montage sequences in a manner that’s just as moving as in C.R.A.Z.Y, and a character’s mindset is often communicated to us by means of the same kinds of embarrassing singing-into-the-hairbrush moments that helped make the earlier film so charming.
What’s missing is a decent plot – unlike C.R.A.Z.Y, Café doesn’t have the excuse of autobiography to allow for contrived or dull moments. And both of the film’s narratives are dull; soap-opera-esque in focus and in execution. Sentimentality, unfortunately, rules. Antoine and Laurent’s obsession with the ‘Café de Flore’ tune starts to look forced quite quickly, as does Carole’s preoccupation with her dead marriage – as things progress, the action is only plausible if the emotion is ever-heightened. Sentimentality excuses irrational behaviour in film no more than in life.
It’s clear that Vallée wants his film to be considered as part of the millennial French-Canadian tradition of excellence. Café de Flore, however, is unremarkable and ill-wrought, and doesn’t deserve a place in that pantheon. Monsieur Lazhar is in cinemas soon – go see that first.