“Hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.”– 38 Special
Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) lives in Paris circa 1969 with her little boy, Laurent (Marin Gerrier), who has Down syndrome. Abandoned by her husband, Jacqueline creates a world just for the two of them, but when a sweet little girl with the same condition enters Laurent’s life, Jacqueline feels threatened by her son’s new found friendship. Fast forward to 2011 in Montreal, Antoine (Kevin Parent) is almost 40 years old, and a highly sought after DJ with a life most people would envy. As a teenager he met and fell in love with Carole (Helene Florent) and their passion for music bonded them together in a loving marriage for 20 years. When Antoine meets a new love named Rose (Evelyne Brochu), he chooses her over his wife and family, leaving Carole to struggle with letting go of the only man she’s ever loved. These two stories appear to be worlds, as well as decades apart, but they are intertwined in a bond of love and obsession that sends Carole and Jacqueline down a path of self-destruction.
Love is not always ‘soft as an easy chair’ as Barbara Streisand sings in the song “Evergreen,” it takes hard work by both people to maintain a love relationship — and sometimes it requires us to let go when that’s the last thing we want to do. In writer/director Jean-Marc Vallee’s (Dallas Buyers Club) French language film Café de Flore, he shows the difficulties of giving everything over to love, in two distinctly different stories, one between a mother and her son, and the other a marriage complicated by infidelity.
Vallee skillfully lays out both stories side by side without confusing the viewer, when it would seem impossible to do so. He manages to tell each story distinctly even as he parallels them. Jacqueline is a loving mother in 1960s
Paris, taking care of a special needs child in a day and age when that was unheard of. But her ardent love for Laurent is also her weakness, and she can’t see past a time when he isn’t the only person in her life, nor she the only one in his. Antoine lives with his girlfriend Rose and his children, who also split time between he and his ex-wife Carole. He rationalizes his decision to cheat on Carole by saying it was she who threw he and Rose together when she insisted he go to an AA meeting where he meets his mistress. It is as if the cosmos meant
for him to stray, and after 20 years, he feels justified in leaving Carole to be with the woman who brings out a passion in him he hasn’t felt since he and Carole first got together.
Carole and Jacqueline are the focus of the film, while Antoine and Laurent play the objects of their obsessive affections. We see them in the past as younger, stronger women who were pivotal in the lives of their men. And it is this same strength that makes them cling to their loves in very destructive ways. Jacqueline was abandoned by a husband who couldn’t handle his lovely boy, Laurent, so she hunkers down and creates a world where there is only room for the two of them. We see the loving relationship and closeness between mother and son turn into jealousy and fear, which causes Jacqueline to cling even more to Laurent when she begins to see the growth she had previously worked so hard to instill in him.
Carole believes that her relationship with Antoine is written in the stars, and everything will be fine. So she ignores the signs and the flirtation between her beloved and Rose, certain that he will never leave. And when he does, she hopes against hope that he will return. Vallee skillfully moves the viewer back and forth between 1960s Paris and current day Montreal, slowly revealing the connection between these two women who appear to be heading towards the same tragic fate.
This is a smart film, one I highly recommend, even though one aspect of Café de Flore leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. That is how Vallee tap dances around the infidelity issue. It’s as if Antoine’s betrayal isn’t that big a deal. Maybe that’s cultural or just a different world view, either way, what Vallee focuses on is how poorly Carole handles the break up. Sure, we want her to overcome the heartbreak from Antoine’s betrayal so she can move on with her life, but unlike Jacqueline who creates her own hell, Carole is the victim of two selfish people who went ahead and entered into a relationship without regards for the people hurt in their wake. Vallee tries to make Rose and Antoine sympathetic characters who just couldn’t help breaking up a relationship.
Vallee never even has Antoine considering working to keep the marriage intact. Instead, the emphasis is on following one’s heart, as if individual happiness is all that matters. Antoine and Rose have an ‘us against the world’ attitude which makes it easy for them to disregard how much they are hurting not only Carole, but the kids as well. Love isn’t just how you feel, it also represents a commitment you make. Feelings fluctuate over time, the ebb and flow changing as a relationship goes through its natural ups and downs, so this makes following your heart notoriously unreliable.
Café de Flore will definitely stir up conversation between audiences who watch it; pitting those that think you don’t betray someone you’re in a relationship with because the passion subsides versus those who believe
personal happiness trumps all. And if you happen to fall out of love with your spouse and in love with someone else, then it’s just fine to move on, even if it unintentionally hurts those you claim to care about.
Regardless, this is a wonderful film, with a fantastic cast, but kudos goes to Vanessa Paradis and Helene Florent. These two women give powerful performances, and although both let their feelings overtake them, there isn’t a soul who can’t relate to how desperate they feel when the person they love most in the world begins moving on without them.
Café de Flore is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Vallee brilliantly shot the scenes from 1969 to look as if the film was truly from that decade, with the grainy images and the washed out colors that age brings to celluloid. The 2011 scenes from Montreal show all the crisp colors and brightness of newer films, and this helps to separate two stories told simultaneously. The Dolby Stereo audio of this Canadian production has a pleasant soundtrack that doesn’t overpower the beautiful French language, and it provides English subtitles that are easy to read and don’t take you out of the moment. This is a bare bones DVD release with no accompanying extras — and that’s too bad.
Café de Flore is a love story, yes, but not in the way you might think. We see two women, from two different decades struggle with an obsessive love that threatens to ruin them both. Vallee does a wonderful job of humanizing them, and that helps the viewer empathize with the plight of these women who were hurt to their core.
Cafe de Flore (DVD)
2014, Adopt Films, 120 minutes, NR (2012)
VIDEO: 1.78:1 AUDIO: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French) SUBTITLES: English (SDH)
EXTRAS: None ACCOMPLICES: IMDB