When I recently met up with a large group of people involved in the Toronto film blogging scene, I was really looking forward to discussing everything I had watched at Midnight Madness and Toronto After Dark, from mind melting movies like Kill List and Redline, to action packed offerings like The Raid and A Lonely Place to Die. We got to talking about these Genre films, but by the end of the night everyone was raving about Café de Flore, which I had never even heard of. Apparently, this mysterious film out of Canada and France was making some serious noise amongst the critics. I quietly sipped my beer, upset with myself for not being on top of this new release. However, I’m new to the review game, and I was hanging out with veterans. There was only one course of action. The next day I went to the Cumberland Cinema in Toronto and bought a ticket for Café de Flore.
The film is written and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée who came into the spotlight a few years back with the very successful C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005). This time around Vallée tells the audience a dizzying and flashback heavy story about love and loss. Café de Flore begins by following two separate story lines. The first is about a single mother named Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) and her young son Laurent (Marin Gerrier), who was born with Down’s syndrome. The pair do not live a very comfortable life, but it is a happy one, thanks to Jacqueline’s unwavering and almost superhuman dedication to her son, despite the inevitable difficulties that Laurent’s condition may present on a daily basis. On the other side of the coin is the story of Antoine (Kevin Parent), a very successful DJ at the age of forty. Antoine travels the world, has two beautiful young daughters, is in the best shape of his life, and is madly love with Rose (Evelyne Brochu). These two stories are two very different snapshots of life and an interesting juxtaposition of two very different types of love. From here a series of flashbacks and present day scenes advance these stories in directions that are not always clear, with characters that are not always easily understood, but this confusion is intentional as Café de Flore builds up to an emotionally charged finale that will not be easily forgotten.
Having seen Café de Flore a few days ago, I’m still trying to determine exactly how I feel about it. That it’s a powerful and entertaining film is very clear, but how good is it? Will it garner any Canadian awards? I would not hesitate to say yes. Is it in my personal top ten of the year? Without a doubt. Will it be mentioned in Oscar talks? We’ll have to wait and see.
The film has been expertly crafted on so many levels. Very often I’m not hugely impressed by the ability of Dramas to elicit emotions from an audience, it often feels like the filmmakers are cheating. A kind person or an innocent child dies, another person overcomes adversity, characters fall in love – maybe I’m blowing it out of proportion, but I’ve lost interest in these stories unless there is something spectacular about them. One of the main strengths of Café de Flore is the jumbled nature of the narrative. Thanks to the many flashbacks and the non-linear script, it takes a while to even figure out who is who, let alone the inner emotions and motivations of these characters. This unconventional storytelling could have been a disaster, but manages to work wonderfully.
Another area where Café de Flore excels is in the acting department. Vanessa Paradis’ performance is powerful and is certainly going to get some award attention, while the performance by Marin Gerrier as her son had me shaking my head in amazement. Where did they find this kid? He’s a natural actor, and as far as I can tell this is his first feature film.
Finally, music plays a very large role in the film, and the soundtrack is great as a whole, but the highlight has to be the nightclub scenes. I thought the opening club scenes in Blade and Replacement Killers were good, but they don’t seem to compare to the resonating bass and dizzying lights on display in Café de Flore. I feel silly saying this, but these nightclub scenes were more exciting and seemed more real than actual nightclubs. Maybe I don’t get out enough.
Despite my love for this film, I still had a few problems with it. For starters, the acting was pretty solid all around, but the casting for some of the flashback scenes was a little questionable. The teenagers that played younger versions of characters in the flashbacks really didn’t resemble their adult counterparts, which became a little distracting as I was trying to figure out who was who. Also, the final scene (stick around for the credits) had me scratching my head as it didn’t seem to fit in with the core messages of the film. Finally, there’s a psychic medium character in Café de Flore, and I’ve got a half-joking saying that goes ‘have a medium and ruin a movie’ (Jeepers Creepers anyone?) Mediums always play the role of someone with privileged information that needs to hold their tongue for the greater good, and as a result, often come across as incredibly annoying characters. However, I’m happy to report that this particular medium did not ruin Café de Flore.
In closing, Café de Flore is a great example of how to make an emotionally charged drama that feels like it brings something new to the table. Amazing acting, beautiful visuals, engrossing music, and one of this years must see films!
Café de Flore has also been awarded the Entertainment Maven Seal of Approval.