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.