Café de Flore is very much a game of two halves. The first half is almost a psychedelic stream of consciousness collecting a series of intriguing and interesting moments that seem to refuse to add up. It perfectly evokes Pink Floyd, somewhat appropriate given how frequently the movie returns to the haunting opening of Dark Side of the Moon and even incorporates the iconic prism into its logo. However, the second half not only fails to live up to the promise of the more surreal first part of the film, it comes with several worrying implications that seriously undermine what had been a fascinating meditation on the way that music shapes our experiences.
I think that Café de Flore might have the best soundtrack of any film this year. When it’s not treating us to classic and existential rock ‘n’ roll (“what the $%#! am I doing here?” serving as the refrain to one of our lead’s songs), it’s cleverly saturating the soundtrack with variations on Café de Flore, a piece of music that links us to old Paris and modern Montreal. Ever had a song so deeply stuck in your head that you couldn’t help but hear it everywhere you go? It seems that the entire world of Café de Flore marches to that familiar beat, whether as ambient jazz, dance remix or idle toe-tapping.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée manages to perfectly evoke the beautiful randomness of music – the weird associations we form while listening to it. Our lead character, a DJ named Antoine, seems to be assaulted by strange out-of-sequence images. Some are fantasy (his new lover frolicking in the clouds), some are beautifully mundane (the recurring image of a plane approaching the sun juxtaposed against a clear blue sky) and some are powerful memories (of his ex-wife Carolé). He relates an experience familiar to any music lover – that strange sense of well-being the perfect song at the perfect moment can generate. In recent memory, only (500) Days of Summer blended sound and image better. Were this a two-hour-long music video, it would be a damn fine one, to be fair.
Hell, the movie even beautifully sums up the appeal of Pink Floyd. Asked to explain his affection for the band, Antoine explains, “You understand $%#! all, but it soothes the soul.” For a while, it seems like the film might be attempting to evoke that feeling. We discover the reality of Antoine’s home situation, his failed marriage and his new lover, with his children caught in the middle. His ex-wife lives with her lover, and the group is delightfully passive aggressive. We only catch small moments, moments of intense emotion, before moving on to the next track, leaving us to piece it all together.
Oh, and there’s also a plot running concurrently in Paris in 1969. It seems appropriately weird, and more than slightly interesting. As we watch the two stories unfold, we wonder what the connection might be between Antoine’s home situation and the attempts of single mother Jacqueline to raise her son Laurent, who was born with Downs Syndrome, and has a life expectancy of 25 years. It’s interesting, because people affected with Downs Syndrome seem to get relatively little media exposure, so it’s initially quite interesting to see this narrative unfold. I know that the portrayal of people suffering with all mental disabilities is in dire need of improvement, but movies seldom seem to explore the challenges of Downs Syndrome.
And, to be fair, the plot is actually initially quite interesting as we watch it unfold, and Jacqueline vows to allow her child to have a normal life. It’s relatively rare in films to see those mildly affected by disabilities fully integrate and contribute, and the film seems to concede that the mental disabilities facing a child with the condition may vary from case to case. Laurent does develop a speech impediment and have some cognitive difficulties, but the movie initially seems to suggest that his mother might be able to integrate him, and to teach him a significant degree of self-sufficiency.
However, this plot becomes a bit of a problem in the second half. I don’t want to spoilt too much, but it is revealed early on that these sequences are dreams that Carolé, Antoine’s ex-wife, is having as she sleepwalks. That immediately demotes Jacqueline and Laurent to a subplot rather than a concurrent plot – the outcome of any of their story will only be relevent to Carolé and Antoine, and Antoine’s new lover Rose. Jacqueline and Laurent only exist to tell Carolé something, rather than to tell their own story.
That’s a bit of a shame, as it’s rare to see the reality of living with a child with these sorts of needs covered on film, and it undermines some of the more affecting sequences – such as a lovely one where Laurent proves just how capable he is of fending for himself. Despite the fact that Vanessa Paradis got top billing, the pair are reduced to the status of side characters. Indeed, when the true nature of this subplot is revealed, it makes them seem even less important, as if treating the characters suffering with a mental disability as a flawed iteration of our leads, who are all beautiful people, albeit recovering from addiction. Still, that’s not the biggest flaw with the film.
It becomes clear that, through Carolé’s dream, the characters are stand-ins for herself, her ex-husband and his lover. There’s just something squirm-inducing about the fact that Carolé is equated with Jacqueline and Antoine is equated with Laurent. Freud would have had a field day that idea. There’s also something a bit strange about the attempt to equate a dysfunctional marriage between two perfectly healthy adults to the relationship between a mother and her disabled child. The two don’t really seem equivalent, to be entirely honest. It seems a bit disingenuous.
It’s a shame, because the leading performances are all good, especially Hélène Florent as Carole. Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction has an almost ethereal quality to it, an it feels appropriate that it seems like an especially surreal music video at times. Unfortunately, the second half doesn’t live up to the promise of the first, in a way feeling like some of the later work of the more psychedelic artists it seems so fond of.