Sunday, 12 July 2015

Cafe De Flor

Jean-Marc Vallee's ‘Café De Flore’ is one of my favourite speculative films of recent years.  Written and directed by Vallee, who also directed the critically acclaimed Dallas Buyer’s Club, the film is a masterpiece of sustained tension and intrigue, with fragmentary elements that fit together like a Chinese puzzle to create a beautiful, moving cinematic experience. 

The speculative elements in the film are subtle and don’t really come into force until the end; although there are very brief and occasional ‘horror’ moments, included perhaps as red herrings as the film never veers down that particular path.  In fact, you could even argue that the film is not speculative at all.  On first watch, it is a baffling film for most of its length; having two story threads set forty years apart which appear to have no obvious connection to each other. 

 In one thread, Kevin Parent is Antoine, a successful modern-day DJ who has recently separated from his wife, Carole (played by Helene Florent), and now living with new flame, Rose (Evelyn Brochu) who he believes is his soul mate.  The people close to Antoine, including his two daughters and his parents, are struggling to adjust to the breakup of this twenty-year relationship that began when Antoine and Carole were teenagers.  Least able to cope is ex-wife Carole, who is sleepwalking and suffering nightmares of a ‘little monster’ glimpsed in the back seat of her car. 

 The second thread concerns Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradise), a young mother in 1960’s Paris whose husband leaves her after the birth of their Down’s Syndrome son, Laurent (Marin Gerrier).  Jacqueline is besotted with Laurent and committed to finding ways to extend his life beyond the expected twenty-five years.  Her story turns darker after Laurent bonds with a girl at his school who also has Down’s and who he quickly becomes inseparable from.

 Café De Flore is a film that shouldn’t work.  The timeline is all over the place.  Besides the two threads, we also have flashbacks to Antoine and Carole falling in love as teenagers.  These three elements constantly shift, merge, overlap, and mirror each other, as if all three are happening at once.  Also, the film’s slightly corny theme of soul mates, destiny, and love ‘written in the stars’ could easily have derailed it.  Yet this never happens.  On first watch, I genuinely had no idea where it was going and the denouncement, when it came, left me stunned.  The film only begins to reveal itself towards the end when Carole visits a medium in order to make sense of her nightmares.  Watching it a second time, I could see how all the pointers were laid bare – almost to a glaring degree – and I wondered how the film could ever have kept me guessing.  Of course, I now had the benefit of hindsight, and it’s worth mentioning that because of the film’s twist ending it didn’t really stand up to a second viewing, unless you want to unpick the tiny embedded details and clues.  The only mis-step for me was the unnecessary Amelie-esque voiceover at the beginning, which a number of French films have used in recent times perhaps in an attempt to align themselves with that particular film’s huge international success.

The acting is excellent throughout, and Paradise in particular shines as the dowdy, exhausted single-mother spiralling into jealousy and defeat.  The film also has a great, pivotal soundtrack, including songs from The Cure, Sigur Ros (who provide the film with one of its lighter, funnier moments) and Pink Floyd.

Café de Flore’s final shot, in which the camera zooms into a photograph, is as powerful as the similar device used by Kubrick at the end of The Shining (in fact it may even be a homage, or if you prefer a theft, from that film).  Though the intent is not to scare, it is a shocking moment in which all the film’s connections and symbols and clues suddenly come to the fore.  Of course, as with any twist-ending film, there will inevitably be those people who jump up and say they knew what was going on from the beginning.  To those people I doff my cap, whilst at the same time feeling a bit sorry that they couldn’t enjoy this ride to the end.  Café de Flore, then.  Leave your cynicism at the door.

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