Culture & Conversation

Barf bag not included

cafe de flore

Halfway through Café de Flore I began having terrible flashbacks to The Tree of Life. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. What’s with the recurring shots of a plane flying into the sun? Jesus Christ, did the plane just explode? But why? Oh hell, another lovesick memory of days gone by. Jean-Marc Vallée, you did not just throw a spiritual medium into the plot. I prayed there weren’t any voiceover-on-fetus scenes coming.

It is a fetus-free film, and there is a blessed absence of big bang montages or forays into prehistoric dinosaur face-offs. But, have I lost the taste for drama or do these “cinematic” filmmakers, in all their stunning visual digressions, take themselves too seriously? Vallée’s celebrated C.R.A.Z.Y. was not this contrived and cheesy – and a coming-of-age, coming-out-of-the-closet story has plenty of opportunities for cheddariness.

Café de Flore starts off strong. The lovely Evelyne Brochu, as Rose, plays the new lover to Antoine (Kevin Parent), a hot DJ who never abandoned his party days yet is father to two girls and wracked with guilt over leaving his wife years earlier. Hélène Florent plays the tortured ex with all the convincing flourishes: creepy sleepwalking episodes, clenched fists, and New Age hippy-dippy self-help books spilling off her bed.

But wait! That’s not all! A seven-year-old child with Down syndrome in the late 1960s and his overprotective single mother tie up the cast. He meets a girl at school and becomes increasingly misbehaved while his helpless mother struggles to control his outbursts. The parallel plots carry themselves for the first part of the film, in spite of an absence of apparent connection. Then you discover how the plots are related. Insider tip: bring a barf baggie for the magical ending.

Shameless emotional manipulation is an all too prevalent sin of filmmaking. Cue Sigur Rós’ divine Svefn-G-Englar, and Café de Flore begins to unravel. The notes hit right at the heart, that funny space where emotions sneak in without your permission. After an hour the crooning can sound like a gorgeous version of the Icelandic Chipmunks Christmas special, but for a short time, Sigur Rós gets deep under your skin.

In the Sigur Rós montage, the boy with Down syndrome smiles on his girlfriend with all the tenderness and intensity of a soul exponentially older (a stunning and moving shot). Cut to Parent and Brochu as they float naked underwater, clutching each other desperately, rays of sunlight reaching around them. Cue some other heart-wrenching moment or other, and another, and another. Vallée reaches for the sublime, and it proves way too much.

Soon after Café de Flore vomits with this flurry of feeling all over the audience, Florent’s spiritual medium makes an appearance, and it’s all downhill from there. Emotionally overwrought montage aside, Café de Flore does offer a good soundtrack, and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon nicely complements Florent’s mental freak-outs. In fact, if there had been something more tongue-in-cheek about the whole project – something wry and self-aware, without the “twin flames” soulmate bullshit – it could have been a great movie. The acting is impressive, the characters relatable, and the plots compelling.

As it stands, Café de Flore has the same problem The Tree of Life has. It takes itself so deeply, unbearably, and absurdly seriously that you almost wonder – is it a joke? In fact, it’s just a disappointment, a movie that could have been so much more if it hadn’t shot too high and gone too weird.

  • 8 Responses to “Barf bag not included”

    1. Eli

      Sarah, you seem to have missed the poetry and grand narrative to it all. Okay, maybe the whole link tying together the two story lines didn’t work for you. Maybe you found it hackneyed manipulative and cliche; I can accept that. But at the heart of this film is metaphor. Metaphor for the journey we all go through when falling in and out of love. The intensity of the feelings and emotions seem larger than life to as they are happening, both to the characters in the film, and in our own lives – at least they do if you are doing it right.

      Valleé captures this intensity and explores the journey of self discovery through these intertwined plot lines. Whatever vehicle one chooses to work their way through this sort of emotional intensity is valid; especially when it ultimately leads to, yes, I’m going to actually use this word – redemption.

      This is ultimately a positive uplifting story of three people locked together in a triangle, who ultimately free themselves. Most importantly Florent’s character is able to reshape her perceptions of her own life and of those around her. She frees them from the tyranny of their shared histories. She redeems herself and elevates herself as well as the entire cast of characters by finding a way to change her perspective on the grand narrative of their shared story.

      She frees herself from the “life as it should be” super ego prison most of us are locked in; and transforms her perception to the “life as it is” model that serves us so much more effectively when dealing with the world around us and the people that populate our lives. And she is aided in this process of self discovery through her dreams. Is this not a legitimate avenue explored in all modern psychotherapy?

      Life is messy. That is the human condition. Valle´gives us not melodrama; but rather constructive, hard, challenging, messy, difficult, and ultimately positive human drama to sink our teeth into and examine our own lives with. The link between the two stories is poetic; not literal. And that’s what makes it work. This is what makes Cafe De Flore intense human drama rather than flakey spiritual quasi sci fi spiritual blather.

      The human condition itself becomes the backdrop on which he explores the state of the psyche in flux during these emotional crisis that are very real in all of our lives.The love and intensity of emotion between the three main characters in this film is larger than life. It is not, IMHO, meant to be taken literally. But that level of intensity is what we all feel at moments in our own stories as we work our way through the path to redeeming ourselves and our lives. Valeé explores this in an interestingly cinematic poetic manner which touched me deeply. And the use of dream and metaphor enhances rather than detracts by transforming the narrative to that of the collective consciousness we all share on our own difficult messy human journeys towards redemption.


    2. @automedusa

      I was completely immersed in the story, amazed by the children actors, and full of admiration at the writer's capacity to weave together a completely contemporary lifestyle with the past and to find a non-cliché link between Montreal and France… but I agree that the moment the medium made the apperance I felt a huge disappointment.

      The writer locked himself into a corner and then had to fall on "the simplest solution".

      However this doesn't prevent me from recommending the film as one of the best movies produced in recent years in Quebec. It's wonderful to see directors exploring new landscapes, different ways of telling a story, expanding the horizons further away from the constraints of was is expected from a "filme quebecois".

    3. JLP

      I agree with the two previous posters: this is a great film. The reviewer appears very cynical. Maybe spirituality and ''emotionality'' does not appeal to her but for many people, the film will be imprinted as it relates to past experiences.

    4. Sarah

      I agree it could have been a great movie. There is some wonderful acting and compelling plot lines. But there are just too many elements about it that bother me, and in fact it would have resonated more if no ties were drawn between the two plots at all. Why is it necessary to have a poetic link which rings so absurd? Why not leave the thematic connection implicit?

      Cafe de Flore is, I believe, a study in love, devotion, and how people become undone by it. A fascinating topic, surely. My objections are to the fatalism, the idea of soulmates, the sense that there is a predestination to our relationships. It strikes me as naive and immature to treat love in this way as Vallee does.

      Finally (and in response to my apparent cynicism ;) ): spirituality and emotionality are all well and good. They are a core part of our humanity. But at a certain point one begins to feel manipulated as a viewer; when a certain emotional response is expected and actively sought out. That's the point when I stop responding to a movie- when my emotions are no longer mine, but the collective swooning of an audience under spell.

      The "messiness" of "real life" rarely inspires unambiguous emotional reactions; and it certainly never culminates in a single, easy-to-isolate moment of redemption.

      • Eli

        Hi Sarah,

        Thanks of the response – I think you make some very compelling points very well. I hear what you say about preferring the link between the two stories not be spelled out so overtly. What can I say, I prefer that they are linked, the way they are. And it is precisely because of this link that I don't see the underlying theme as one of fatalism at all, but rather the opposite. Humanism.

        Fatalism is the doctrine that all events are predetermined by fate, and therefore unalterable. And it precisely at the moment when Florent is able to free herself from the tyranny of fatalism and ultimately take control over her own destiny, that she realizes her true humanity and potential.

        This is ultimately a humanist message rather than fatalist. It underlines a belief system where people's spiritual and emotional needs can be satisfied without following a God or religion. We can make choices and influence our own lives independently. God is in all of us. Not outside of us. It is precisely at the moment of Florent's realization, that God is dead. And by realizing that and changing the course of her own "destiny" ultimately realizes that God is alive – inside each of us.

        As far as the idea of soul mates, I think it was pretty clear after the denouement that they all accepted the notion of soul mates as being false. That is what imprisoned them in their triangle. Florent finally was able to release herself from the hold of the romantic notion. Antoine abandoned the idea before the diabetic storyline began, by the act of leaving Florent. And Rose, well, we don't know for sure.

        It does seem immature to treat love as fatalistic, outside of our control, and predetermined by some abstract notion of there being a perfect should mate out there. The whole film is a meditation on deconstructing this paradigm. Vallée wrestled it to the ground, turned it inside out for us to examine and experience.

        Was his examination manipulative? Well, yes, maybe a little. Maybe more than a little. I agree. It was an unfortunate side effect of the powerful feeling of resolution that sweeps over as at the climax. Still, it felt good. Yes, he could of left us asking more questions and continuing our own examinations in our own personal ways. He could have done this by not presenting us a perfectly wrapped "happy ending" to wash it all down with. But he did. It would have been a very different film, if everyone didn't "live happily ever after".

        And as far as that moment of redemption. Ahhh, that sweet sweet moment we are all searching for all our lives. Yeah, no…….. it rarely happens that way in real life. Life is way more ambiguous for most of us. But this is art. It's a story. A story with a beginning, middle and end. Real life doesn't have an end. When it does, it's too late to appreciate the bigger picture of it all. Our lives are all ongoing narratives. All of humanity is an ongoing narrative. All we can do is try and find our own meaning in it. Find our own personal moments of "mini redemtptions" to guide us. But I digress…..I'm off on a tangent at this point:-)

        Thanks for the provocative, well written, and well defended review :-) I am enjoying chewing on your thoughts about this film.


    5. Eli

      Opps, I meant to write "diagetic storyline"in the fourth paragraph, not "diabetic storyline". And in the next paragraph it should be "perfect soul mate", not perfect should mate! Sorry for the typos…..

    6. Saffy

      I think it's actually "diegetic", as in "diegesis" or relating to the narrative….

    7. Blondi

      I agree with JLP – that this reviewer seems cynical. This was a truly original, beautiful film with an exceptional cast and a way of delivering the connections without spoon feeding them to us. Coupled with an exquisite, haunting soundtrack, it is easily the best movie I have seen in years. I'm wondering if the reviewer was in the same boat as the woman sitting behind me last night as I watched the movie (in Australia) "I just don't get it…" or perhaps a fan of over-produced, over-acted blockbusters ;)
      One thing I will agree on is the appearance of the medium…however this was not enough to tarnish the film, which is still in my mind days later.


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