Love is about holding on to someone, but it is also about knowing when to let go. This theme defines Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de flore, his second film since the 2005 hit C.R.A.Z.Y., and one of the most poignant films in recent memory. Not only does Café de flore repeat Vallée’s earlier success, but goes far beyond it in its extraordinary ability to capture the intensity of deeply-felt human emotion. The title refers not to the famous Paris café, but to a jazzy song with the same name that serves as a connection between each of the film’s two parallel stories. In addition to the title song, music plays a large role in the film as it did in “C.R.A.Z.Y.” with songs from Pink Floyd, Sigur Rós, and The Cure supporting key points in the narrative.
Unfolding with a non-linear script that includes multiple flashbacks, flash-forwards, and cross-cutting, the stories take place in two time periods over forty years apart. In the present day, Antoine (Kevin Parent) is a well-to-do middle-aged disc jockey who lives in a suburban home with his partner Rose (Evelyne Brochu) and his two daughters from a former marriage (Joanny Corbeil-Picher, Rosalie Fortier). Everything looks wonderful on the surface except that Antoine is visiting a psychiatrist to handle his feelings about what he feels is betrayal of his family. Antoine’s first wife Carole (Hélène Florent) is distraught and yearns for reconciliation with the man she has always thought of as her soul mate since they came together as teenagers out of a shared love of music.
Carole is urged by friends to let go of Antoine and move on, but she is obsessed with getting him back, telling her friend, “I’ve never kissed another man.” She takes drugs to help her sleep, sleepwalks in the middle of the night, and has dreams and waking visions of a strange woman in Paris many years ago experiencing a similar pain in her relationship. To help her understand her visions, Carole visits a spiritual adviser who tells her that her dreams are not a coincidence. The parallel story is set in Paris in 1969, Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis), a single mother cares for her young son Laurent (Lucas Bonin) who was born with Down’s syndrome. She was abandoned by her husband after Laurent’s birth because he did not want to be a “missionary.”
Jacqueline is a devoted mother, showering her son with love, and intending to ensure that he lives past the norm of twenty-five years for a person with his condition. When she enrolls him in a normal school, she constantly protects him from bullies and also from teachers who are not willing or able to deal with him. Jacqueline wants to train Laurent to defend himself by learning how to box but, when he rebels at the idea, she teaches him to strike back through words which he uses to peak efficiency at the right moment.
When Laurent is seven, he develops a close attachment to Veronique, another Down’s syndrome child, an attachment that threatens his mother’s obsessive protection and leads to an unforeseen turn in their relationship. Café de flore is a passionately performed and spiritually resonant film, one of the best I’ve seen this year. Reminiscent of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life with its voice overs reflecting the inner thoughts of the characters, it is a haunting experience and the mystical connection between its two stories will keep you in a Donnie Darko-like state of puzzlement long into the night and beyond.