In 2011 Montreal, the DJ Antoine (Kevin Parent) is about to turn 40. He is successful, healthy, has two beautiful daughters and is in a loving relationship with Rose (Evelyne Brochu), who he is preparing to marry. In 1969 Paris, Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) is raising her son Laurent (Marin Gerrier), who was born with Down syndrome. She has read that the boy’s life expectancy is 25, but she is determined he will live to be an old man, and she devotes her life to him.
Linking the two storylines in Café de Flore is the eponymous song. In Paris, Laurent listens to a jazzy piano version. In Quebec, Antoine prefers a groovy ambient cover. Much as he did in 2005’s C.R.A.Z.Y., writer-director Jean-Marc Vallée uses pop music liberally, sometimes to sublime effect, other times more subtly (Antoine’s bedside alarm clock uses the clanging bells that opens Pink Floyd’s Time). Sigur Rós plays when Antoine meets Rose, and the chorus swells at the precise moment they fall in instant love with each other.
Vallée uses film the way a DJ uses music: To make you see and feel the world exactly as he does. Café de Flore is told in non-chronological order, with flashbacks within flashbacks and narratives constantly jumping back and forth across decades. But there isn’t a single moment in the movie when you’re lost or confused. This is a picture that moves the heart more than it engages the brain. Recurring images, such as a shot of Antoine’s ex-wife (Hélène Florent) driving her car in an agitated state or glimpses of a teenaged Antoine hanging around with his girlfriend and listening to The Cure, don’t mean anything at first. Eventually, though, everything coalesces into an enormous wallop One of the great pleasures of the movie is seeing how the entire lives and histories of these characters gradually come together bit by breathtaking bit..
In its final 20 minutes, Café de Flore takes a huge, quasi-spiritual turn, reminiscent of what Vallée did in C.R.A.Z.Y. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work this time either, requiring too large of a leap of faith from the viewer. But you can completely ignore the twist (it springs not from the director, but from the minds of one of the characters) and still walk away loving this ambitious, poignant movie. I’ve purposely avoided saying what Café de Flore is really about, because the central premise is resonant and touching but knowing too much would rob the reveal of its power. Vallée continues to prove he’s a talent to watch, though. I can’t think of another filmmaker who makes such technically complex, skilled pictures about such intimate matters. This is a gorgeous, flashy, widescreen epic, like Boogie Nights or Casino, about the most essential things in life: Family, friends and love — most of all, though, love.