Monday, April 09, 2012


Cast: Vanessa Paradis, Kevin Parent, Hélène Florent, Évelyne Brochu, Marin Gerrier, Alice Dubois
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Runtime: 120 min.
Language: French
Country: Canada
Verdict: Guilty of rationalizing unethical behavior with irrational mystification. But as a piece of music it is fantastic to listen to.
Genre: Drama

                Café De Flore structures its narrative in a manner that invites the viewer to put his judging cap on, and then proceeds to turn that judgment back on the viewer himself. Or at least, that seems to be the intention. And despite that, judge I will. By the powers vested in me by the blogosphere judge I will, more so because the film’s narrator (a woman) basically asks us to consider two mostly archetypical scenarios. There’s Rose (Ms. Brochu), introduced as Antoine’s (Mr. Parent) better half, and her characteristics include such things as – (a) a smooth lap Kevin can caress (b) a body that sways along in slow motion, and that beats rhythmically when they have photogenic sex, and (c) a dance so graceful and economic you wonder why Hindi films with all their song and dance numbers invest so much in acrobats. To summarize, dear reader, she’s in tune. Mr. Vallée has enough visual chops to make that pretty apparent, more so considering the fact that the film’s title is not a reference to the famous café in Paris, but Doctor Rockit’s lovely piece, and that his protagonist Kevin is a disc jockey. And whose ex, a most dutiful wife as we get to learn a little later, is basically out of tune, so much so that Mr. Vallée has a dance sequence which starts off with Rose and draws us, and Kevin, in and ends with the blandness the ex, Carole (Ms. Florent), brings to the table, drawing us and Kevin out. Not much is spent in the how either, with a single glance in a party setting the flame, and a jump in time consolidating the directions on the triangle.
That makes the film less of a “moral dilemma” and more of a situation where a decision ought to be had, where the correct decision is the one I shall pronounce in the subsequent few lines, and where the film’s rhetoric strategy is clearly in the service of a wrong end. The strategy being, mirroring Kevin’s profession, free-flowing through different periods, one the present and the other the past set in 1960s Paris where Jacqueline (Ms. Paradis), a single mother, lives with and loves her son Laurent (Mr. Gerrier), who is affected by Down’s syndrome, and who in the entire film doesn’t have a moment of his own. Even a close-up is awarded only in relation to a dramatic moment unfolding with respect to the mother. That makes him an archetype too, an imbecile who needs to be taken care of, and if I try and bring Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal on to the aforementioned table, Jacqueline with her possessiveness is of a similar character type as Barbara Covett. Mr. Vallée sets this association up by lending them an accommodation in a crummy little apartment structure, where the low-key yellow lighting often covering the faces in shadows screams of something sinister lurking in the not too distant future. A future that becomes the present when Laurent, a seven-year old, falls in love with Véro (Ms. Dubois), another little one afflicted with the syndrome.
                The narrative then becomes one long music piece, a refreshing take on the hyperlink film if you ask me, with the periods not having to set the action in the other up. Unlike most films of this breed (consider Mr. Stephen Daldry’s The Hours and The Reader as frames-of-reference), Café De Flore discourages historicity, and much like the waves in the image above that have been cut and pasted from numerous individual tracks, it collapses the past and the present into one free-flowing unit. Taken that way, it’s a film that’s so ideal for our age, where any similarity to be drawn is only through association, and which by definition makes our mind the DJ here. Let me be a little clearer: if the two periods were different films, one might have found little inspiration to link them into a cause-and-effect scenario. This makes the film’s rhetoric, which is very much present and which basically overrides ours, all the more aggravating. Much moralizing of the triangular situation (probably to both appease and tease), by Antoine’s father and elder daughter, is spent before a psychic is introduced to the proceedings, whom Carole meets to discuss her dreams where a little boy (on one occasion referred to as a little monster) hides behind her seat while she’s driving, and whose fingers cause the scary jump. That makes the appearance of Down’s syndrome just as specific to the narrative as having a penguin for a baby. I mean, in each of the case the filmmaker doesn’t need to do anything other than to find different angles from where to capture the opacity so much so that they become the “other” within the frame. Which leaves the slow-mo sequence during the opening credits, and the dozen or so kids afflicted with the syndrome walking past us, a formal choice of really really bad taste. I mean, I am aware of the trappings of having to include such an element where the mere mention might signal a guarded reception, lest we be affected by such easy sentimentality, but that is by no means a defense Mr. Vallée can put up, considering there’s a distinct lack of individuality within his frames, and Laurent for the most part is interchangeable with a cute dog. What his inclusion brings to the narrative is the leverage to use the inherent dependence to establish Jacqueline’s reason to get up in the morning, which basically reflects Carole’s reason (her husband Kevin and their two daughters), without which they both might as well end their lives. Which doesn’t sound that alarming when I put it that way, but which assumes a whole lot of ethical irresponsibility when it equates the binary helplessness of Laurent as an explanation for Antoine’s infidelity. And which completely renders the horror of the past meaningless, much in keeping with the whole re-incarnation thing, by moralizing/rationalizing them as incomplete actions that need closure in the present and more or less absolving them of any guilt. Carole and Antoine and Rose embrace each other in what can be only interpreted as a WTF moment, so much so that when Antoine winks at his wedding, it might as well have been Keyser Soze giving his lawyer a high-five at having getting away with so much of bullshit. And at the end the young Antoine and Carole stand in front of a picture, with their heads flanking it, all of them in line, like a wave, past and present together, and you wonder if the past is rationalizing the future, or is it the other way round. It could’ve been a fascinating composition, had Mr. Vallée employed no zoom, and had the elements within the picture been in the same visual plane. But much like his strategy, where the free-flow is only an illusion, the zoom clearly defines the source and the destination. Which is a shame if you ask me.

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