Friday, November 25, 2011

Lukewarm Offering: Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore

Vanessa Paradis in Café de Flore

Unlike most of the films emanating from English Canada, French Canadian movies, or at least the ones released outside Quebec, are usually so interesting and provocative that it’s startling when a film from there, such as Xavier Dolan’s overrated 2009 debut J'ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother), turns out to be a dud. In fact, other than Dolan’s misguided effort, and the Quebecois’ continuing and baffling appreciation of the low and crass humour of films like Les Boys and Cruising Bar, both of which have spawned sequels, pretty much everything I’ve seen from there has been worth my time at the cinema. More recently, these have included Denys Arcand's smartly satirical Oscar-winning Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions) (2003); Ghyslaine Côté’s Elles étaient cinq (The Five of Us) (2004), a powerful and disturbing look at the ramifications of rape on its victims; Bernard Emond’s deeply philosophical and moving 20h17 rue Darling (8:17 p.m. Darling Street) (2004), which offers much relevant and topical wisdom about Quebec’s economic underclass; Jean-Marc Vallée’s superb and highly imaginative coming-of-age masterpiece C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005); and Denis Villeneuve’s poignant, emotionally devastating family drama Incendies (Scorchers) (2011), among others. Those French-language movies have managed to be intelligent, accessible and energetic, unlike the usual English Canadian model, which is mostly comprised of stiff, restrained and dull art house fare. (That’s a dictum best exemplified by almost the complete output of Atom Egoyan (Ararat, Chloe)). They also provide proof that Canadian movies can work on many entertaining levels at the same time. That’s why Jean Marc Vallée’s third film, Café de Flore, is such a disappointment; it’s a movie whose appeal lies entirely in the director’s mind.

Set forty years apart, and jumping back and forth between two time frames, Café de Flore tells the story of Parisian single mother, Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis), struggling to raise her Down Syndrome afflicted son, Laurent (Lucas Bonin) in 1969; and Antoine (Kevin Parent), a disc jockey in present day Montreal whose life seems well-nigh perfect in terms of health, financial security (obviously he’s a well paid DJ) and happiness with his partner and two children. But things are not quite what they appear on the surface, both in terms of characterization and plot. The French pair turn out to be linked to Antoine in a way that Vallée, no doubt, thinks is an original twist on an age-old tale. I won’t reveal what that connection is, except to point out that it brings in a silly supernatural element to the film, one that Vallée takes far too seriously. In so many ways, Café de Flore is an utter misfire; it escapes ridiculousness only because the talented Vallée doesn’t indulge himself the way, for example, David Lynch, did in his idiotic, overdone Inland Empire (2006), which was somewhat similarly themed.

Marc-Andre Grondin in C.R.A.Z.Y.
Yet, I must admit, that since I was so blown away by C.R.A.Z.Y., Vallée’s stunning debut film, and was duly impressed by his fine and confident English language follow-up, the period costume drama The Young Victoria (2009), I actually wasn’t fidgeting for the film’s first half, fully expecting (and hoping) that the filmmaker would somehow pull the movie’s disparate, and confusing, strands together to reach a dramatically satisfying conclusion. He doesn’t, though, and by the film’s second half, I was starting to mutter to myself how dumb and uninteresting Café de Flore really was. The actors seem to sense this, too, because they don’t give compelling performances, with the possible exception of Bondin. Café de Flore is quite the laidback film, flatly laying out its story and offering up a lukewarm drama in the process. (Since I want to avoid spoilers, all I can add is that the thread tying Jacqueline, Laurent and Antoine together is, in effect, the film’s entire raison d’etre. It’s a ‘payoff’ that’s almost infuriating.) Even the film’s soundtrack, notably the Pink Floyd tracks, including the haunting “Breathe” from their riveting classic Dark Side of the Moon album, is old hat, especially since Vallée used that group’s (and David Bowie’s) music to much greater and memorable effect in C.R.A.Z.Y. I’m actually not sure what Vallée is getting at in this movie, except for the banal and trite observation that we’re all tied to each other as human beings. But clearly, he’s stumbled badly with Café de Flore. Even as a portrait of French and Quebec society the movie fails to engage.

No doubt the director will bounce back. In fact, I’m sure of it. Which means that I’ll give Vallée grudging credit for at least not repeating himself. Thus his future oeuvre will almost surely relegate Café de Flore to the forgettable footnote it deserves to be.

 Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he is currently teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also on Monday Oct. 17, he began teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

1 comment:

  1. I disagree entirely. Of course this critic is entitled to an opinion, but I saw the movie earlier today and his take on it has me questioning whether he should be writing about film at all.