24 April 2012

"Hanging on in Quiet Desperation"

I almost didn't go to the preview of Café de Flore this evening, even though it was free and in a cinema near my office. The description on IMDb didn't really tell me anything about whether or not I would enjoy the film:
A love story between a man and woman. And between a mother and her son. A mystical and fantastical odyssey on love.
On the basis of this, I thought the film would be some sort of francophone version of The Time Traveller's Wife in which the titular existentialist-hangout-turned-tourist-trap-café would serve as a TARDIS, allowing the characters to travel through time and space as they carried out their "mystical and fantastical odyssey on love." I was wrong, of course, although having seen the film, my prediction doesn't seem quite so wacky. My main advice for anyone who goes to see it is to watch carefully — especially the small details — and to enjoy the journey.

Montréal. 2001. A 40-something DJ (Kevin Parent) is playing in his swimming pool, laughing with his beautiful younger woman and his two daughters. Don't be fooled by the seeming perfection of his life, because he's dealing with a number of problems. In the meantime, though, he flies to the UK for a gig. People dance at Fabric (or wherever) while he mixes the Doctor Rockit electro version of the song Café de Flore. It's all very arty: blurry shorts of a group of young people at the airport. Lights. Sad music. Electronic music. Etc.

Meanwhile, in Paris, some 30 years earlier, a beautiful young woman (Vanessa Paradis) gives birth to a boy with Down's syndrome. Forced to raise him alone, she vows to do all that she can to ensure he lives long past the expected 25-year lifespan. He is her whole world and she will do anything for him. You can tell it's the late 1960s because everything seems sepia-tinted and because of the record player, which is usually playing the son's favourite song, Café de Flore. There's a record player in our DJ's apartment too, though. Music is super-important to him: it connects him to his first wife and serves as a weapon through which his tween daughter exacts revenge on him for leaving her mother.

And so we alternate between 2001 and 1969, with many other flashbacks, dreams, nightmares and long, languorous shots thrown in for good measure. Sometimes, we see two goth teenagers, a sad-looking girl and a boy who thinks he's Robert Smith. They listen to Pink Floyd and The Cure. The DJ tells his shrink all about the pictures of her, whoever she is.

It is difficult to say much more without spoiling the film but suffice it to say, it wasn't anything like what I was expecting. Café de Flore is lyrical, beautiful, haunting and enigmatic. Vanessa Paradis stands out as the determined 1960s mother, and it's hard not to be charmed by her son (Marin Gerrier). The soundtrack is fantastic — an interesting mix of The Cure, Pink Floyd, a couple of versions of the titular song, a few sigur rós tracks and this gorgeous song called Le Vent Nous Portera (Sophie Hunger's cover of a Noir Desir track). Incidentally, the café hardly features in the film; I thought I caught a glimpse of the signature green-trimmed chairs and tables at one point, but that was about it.

There may be some spoilers in the rest of this post, although I try not to go into much detail about what happens and what it might all mean:

Towards the end, Café de Flore began to feel a bit David Lynch lite. Writer-director Jean-Marc Vallée hits you over the head with his repeated shots, imagery and motifs. Children in the back of a car, an angry woman pounding the horn of her car in rage, the teenagers looking at each other adoringly. The dreams and dream-like sequences. The mysticism. The foreshadowing. The somewhat confusing achronological storyline. At some points, you might well wonder whose drug-induced hallucination you are going into, to paraphrase Inception, but I don't think the puzzle of Café de Flore is that simple. And actually, I don't think this film necessarily needs to be interpreted or decoded in the same way as Mulholland Drive, although the "mystery" of how everything connected together kept me gripped almost until the ending.

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