Film Review: Café de Flore

Decade-hopping metaphysical romance descends into overwrought histrionics.

When a writer-director edits his own material, the results can often prove unfortunate—and French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée's Café de Flore is a case in point. There's probably a decent enough film lurking somewhere in this overlong, overcomplicated, double-pronged, supernatural-tinged tale of amour fou, but even if it was ever there in Vallée's original screenplay, it's frustratingly absent from his final cut.

Vallée had a runaway domestic hit with 2005's C.R.A.Z.Y., then made a reasonably promising transition to higher-profile English-language features with the period picture The Young Victoria (2009). These successes, and the presence of Vanessa Paradis in a leading role, might yield OK theatrical returns in France and especially in Canada for this slick-looking, crisply shot affair. But prospects in non-Francophone territories are slim for a misfire which might need to rely on TV and DVD sales.

Indeed, the soundest commercial angle might lie via a soundtrack CD, as one of the film's strong suits is a score comprising dance, indie, electro and ethereal-pop cuts—with Iceland's Sigur Ros prominent in the mix. There are also several versions of the big-band-inflected title track by British electro-musician Matthew Herbert, an infectious melody which—like the Virginia Woolf novel in Stephen Daldry's The Hours—serves to connect seemingly unrelated characters separated by several decades.

In present-day Montreal, globetrotting DJ Antoine (Kevin Parent) is two years into a passionate relationship with Rose (Evelyn Brochu)—having left lifelong partner Carole (Hélène Florent) and their daughters. Meanwhile in a grimy 1969 Paris, cash-strapped Jacqueline (Paradis) single-handedly raises her seven-year-old Down syndrome son Laurent (Marin Gerrier). She places him in a non-specialized school, where Laurent succumbs to a powerful case of puppy-love. Jacqueline's struggles to cope with this development are mirrored by Carole's strifes—the latter experiencing hallucinations which make her wonder if some kind of reincarnation has occurred.

This is clearly difficult, sensitive subject matter—but it's done no favors by Vallée's intrusively choppy, disorienting editing style (this is his first editing credit since 1997's Los Locos), the resulting mishmash of crosscuts, flashbacks, dreams and fantasies building to a noisily incoherent, unsatisfying dénouement. Is Jacqueline perhaps just a figment of Carole's anguished imagination? This would if nothing else explain how she obtains a Herbert album featuring “Café de Flore” (the track to which Laurent and Antoine are devoted) three years before the artist's birth.

There's considerable potential in dramatizing Jacqueline's quest to raise Laurent in the most loving and stimulating way—Paradis is rock-solid, and many of her scenes with little Gerrier are touchingly effective. But Vallée might have more profitably concentrated on properly developing that one story, and ditching Café de Flore's less engaging elements altogether—i.e., the modern-day stuff. This kind of metaphysical-romantic multi-layered fare can, with imaginative handling, often work beautifully in fiction. But in film (apart from rare examples like, say, Krzysztof Kieslowski's Double Life of Véronique), it can easily come across as misconceived—or even, as in the final reel here, near-laughably absurd.
The Hollywood Reporter