Review: ‘Café de Flore’ Bends the Boundaries of Time and Space Better Than ‘Cloud Atlas’

By  · Published on November 10th, 2012

We live in a shrinking world. Boundaries are becoming more porous, commerce straddles the oceans, and communication is wide-reaching and constant. The movies have followed suit. There are hyperlink projects like Babel, of course, but international connections have also been explored on a more modest scale. Québec in particular has produced a mighty handful of films that embrace not only the nation’s multi-cultural character but also its global implications. Recent Oscar nominees Monsieur Lazhar and Incendies weave intercontinental stories with ease. Jean-Marc Vallée has added a new layer to this globally open trend with his new film, Café de Flore.

Where other movies have simply been content to tell a single story that happens to span thousands of miles, Vallée has undertaken to make the interconnectedness of humanity itself his thematic focus. He reaches across both space and time, building bridges between the most impossibly distant of characters. He starts in modern-day Montreal. Antoine Godin, played by the newly cleaned and buffed Québecois rocker Kevin Parent, is leading a mostly perfect life. He is deeply in love with his girlfriend, the vivacious Rose (Evelyne Brochu). He has two beautiful daughters from his ex-wife, Carole (Hélène Floren), with whom he still has a strained but amicable relationship. An internationally successful DJ, he jets around the globe helping people lose their inhibitions. Yet as his relationship with Rose progresses, he is forced to confront the grounded parts of his life and the residual damage to his family left by the divorce.

Vallée joins this narrative to another, set four decades before and five thousand miles away. Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) is a struggling single mother in 1960s Paris, intensely devoted to her son Laurent (Marin Gerrier), who has Down’s syndrome. She insists that he be educated in a regular French school, rather than place him in a specialized institution. Their life together is one filled with the little joys of subway rides and favorite records, despite what could seem like a mountain of adversity. Things only become problematic when he develops a friendship with Véronique, a girl at school and the only other student with his condition. Jacqueline, who has lived entirely for her son his whole life, is stricken with jealousy. Paradis delivers an excellent performance of great passion and violent insecurity, well-deserving of the Canadian Academy Award she picked up last year.

Admittedly, this smacks of Cloud Atlas. The two stories are weaved together with similar cinematic techniques, clever editing and inspired use of music. Like the Cloud Atlas Sextet, Café de Flore uses an eponymous Doctor Rockit track as a bridge between the accordion stylings of ’60s Paris and the electronic rhythms from which Antoine builds his livelihood. Yet where Cloud Atlas is bluntly epic and historically ambitious, Café de Flore is transcendent and sexy. Vallée has an excellent sense of style, as he showed in 2005 with C.R.A.Z.Y., still one of the best gay coming-of-age movies ever made. His new film is equally in love with its soundtrack, and it knows just how to dance between sequences without losing the audience in the gaps between the two narratives.

Moreover, Vallée is pushing a much softer message than Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis. While Cloud Atlas tries to make a point about the universality of the human spirit across hundreds of years, in the face of countless oppressive forces, Café de Flore seems mostly concerned with love in and of itself. In the second act of the film, the two stories begin to tack closer and closer together. Fast-edited sequences begin to mix up the images, inducing an almost dreamlike state in which the audience begins to perceive a single, unified story.

With a few well-placed silent screams, a visit to a medium, and a fever pitch of cinematic blending, everything becomes mostly clear. Any more specifics would give it all away. It also isn’t quite perfect, as both the first and last shots of the film seem to hint at something just out of reach. Yet on the whole, Café de Flore succeeds in deconstructing the boundaries of time and space with a clever appeal to human love. It’s like a modest cousin to Cloud Atlas, but this intimacy allows it to be much tighter and more astute.

The Upside: Doctor Rockit is impossibly cool, along with the rest of the soundtrack.

The Downside: At times it does seem a bit far-fetched, or at least over-complicated. A little patience is required in the third act.

On the Side: This is Kevin Parent’s first and only film as an actor. He’s not stunning, but he’s good enough that you would have no idea.

Cafe dé Flore opens in limited release on November 16th at Laemmle’s Monica 4-plex in Santa Monica, Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino, and Edwards Town Center 6 in Irvine.