“When the movie opened in Canada [in 2011], some critics really attacked it,” Vallée says. “They hated it. They wanted the story to be told differently, in a more conventional way. This is a film about pure love, and some people aren’t instinctively tuned into that feeling. They are more cerebral. This film hits you in the gut and the heart; it doesn’t go up to the brain. It’s like someone asking you to explain what rock and roll means to them. It’s something you can’t put it into words.”
Similar to Cloud Atlas, another film that tells several simultaneous stories set in different eras, Café de Flore constantly jumps back and forth in time, sometimes with shots that last only a few seconds. But the dazzling technique never obscures Vallée’s stories about the importance of family, the difficulties of parenting and the unpredictable nature of love. Like C.R.A.Z.Y., Café de Flore is uncommonly attuned to the up-and-down dynamics of extended families — the deep pleasures and exasperating demands of being blessed with a large group of relatives, and what it takes to maintain strong familial connections while trying to lead your own life.
“I’m a family man,” say Vallée, 49. “I have children, I have brothers and sisters, and both of my parents came from big families. I know what it’s like when everyone gets together for a nice celebration like Christmas or Easter or a birthday, and everyone is having a great time, and then someone says or does something and [messes] it up for everyone else. Divorce is particularly difficult in these kinds of situations. Antoine is divorced and preparing to remarry, and his father is very upset about it, and his oldest daughter is really pissed.”
Café de Flore withholds the connection between its two seemingly unrelated storylines until the final half-hour, when the movie makes its boldest move. Vallée pulled a similar twist in C.R.A.Z.Y., when his confused teenaged hero, who was struggling with his homosexuality, took a trip to Jerusalem and had a spiritual awakening.
The director knows the sudden revelation may throw off some viewers, but he stresses that the discovery in the film comes from the characters, not from him.
“I’m always looking for a powerful experience in movies,” he says. “The films I enjoy the most are the ones that make me feel connected to something that is bigger than me. I’m not a religious guy: It’s not about that. I wanted something that was ethereal or mystical or spiritual — I’m not sure exactly what to call it — because this story to me is not just about reality. It’s also about magic, because I do believe there is magic in life.”
Vallée’s willingness to take daring narrative and stylistic risks in the context of highly accessible movies is one of the things that distinguishes him from other Canada-based filmmakers. With a few exceptions (David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan), they tend to play primarily to their home audience, not the world.
“Jean Marc is a flamboyant filmmaker, because that’s how he is in real life,” says Philippe Falardeau, who directed the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar, Canada’s entry into this year’s Academy Awards. “He manages to balance content and form using flashy camerawork and style. He’s also one of the few Canadian filmmakers in the last decade who has been able to make movies that are both personal and commercial. With C.R.A.Z.Y., he proved we can use popular music and culture the same way American and British movies do. He’s very much a pioneer in that sense. Café de Flore is a much more personal film than C.R.A.Z.Y., but it’s just as thrilling to watch.”
And although his last fling with Hollywood ended badly, Vallée is giving it another shot. He is currently in New Orleans preparing to film The Dallas Buyer’s Club, a fact-based story starring Matthew McConaughey as an electrician who was diagnosed with AIDS and given six months to live, but managed to extend his life by importing HIV drugs from other countries not approved by the FDA.
“I’m not well known by American audiences, but a lot of actors know me through my work, and Matthew is really excited to play this character,” Vallée says. “We’re shooting very quickly on a low budget, and even though it’s based on actual events, there’s a little bit of magic in this one, too. I want to put on a good show with every movie I make. David Lynch and Hal Ashby and Stanley Kubrick did it in their time, and Christopher Nolan and David Fincher are doing it today. I love exploring this beautiful poetry of creating images and cutting them together using music and sound. That’s what I did with Café de Flore. Some people may think it was too much. I’m just trying to keep pushing the language of cinema forward.”