A review of Jean-Marc Vallee’s Cafe de Flore as posted to The Toronto Film Scene during the Toronto International Film Festival.
Jean-Marc Vallee tells a story like a broken record.
Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to classify the Canadian director’s latest effort Cafe de Flore as a record that’s just kinda scratched.
You see, the story is continuously in motion and builds towards a very emotional climax. It’s just that with every rotation, the needle seems to catch something – a blip – that is obviously connected to the story.
The problem is that even deep into the film, the audience still isn’t entirely sure why those blips are there, just that they are.
Cafe de Flore is a very musical film. It focuses on Antoine, who is a DJ by trade. It chronicles his life and loves through the music that best evokes his emotions at the appointed time. He’s building a new life with a new love, while trying to deal with the after-effects of a recently-ended marriage.
Even the blips – the scratches – are musical: a child’s attachment to a pop song, the indelible stain that a lost love leaves on the music they’ve come to be associated with, vignettes of Antoine’s DJ sets.
These asides obviously relate to the prominent narrative thread. They’re harmonious to the film’s melody, it’s just that the song selection and order of this particular collection don’t seem to make perfect sense until the whole mixtape has been heard.
If it seems like I’m being purposefully dense with this musical analogy, it’s by design to illustrate how Cafe de Flore connects with its audience.
The film looks at how a life changes in the absence of love and the various skeletons it rustles out of one’s closet in its wake.
This theme is explored by Vallee on a few fronts. Modern Montreal sits on one extreme, with 1960s Paris occupying the other. Generations have their lives interrupted by love’s sudden departure from their lives at different stages of life and none quite know how to handle it except by gut reflex. Some choose anger, while others instinctually choose withdrawal, re-immersion or complete distraction.
The breadth of these approaches is what makes Cafe de Flore work as a film even if the narrative arc doesn’t openly encourage the audience to get lost in any one particular tangent.
The film wants you to latch on where it’s closest to one’s own personal experience before that thread, idea or even character suddenly vanishes. That’s where it’s a tricky film, because the shifts are sudden and drastic and not always the easiest to adapt to.
This is where my scratched record comes back home to roost.
Being a record nerd myself, and a person whose life has been substantially impacted by the love, consumption and performance of music, that was the foothold that was easiest for me to catch on within the film’s structure.
This entry point will vary from person to person. It could be the growth or dissolution of a marriage, familial relationships, childhood, aging or countless other facets that act as Cafe de Flore’s hook.
It’s a record with a lot of grooves.
But what leaves the most lasting effect is how that foothold, that entry point, informs the audience’s personal investment in the film.
It will vary from person to person and will certainly be more rewarding to some than it will to others depending on where the emotional investment occurs.
But, if nothing else, Vallee has issued a challenge to his audience.
Faced with the choice between a slight challenge-high reward offering from a creative filmmaker and a quaint escape that strives for safety on-screen, I’ll almost always choose the former.
That’s the kind of challenge Vallee has put forward in Cafe de Flore .
The reward is high, but risks must be taken first in order to reap it.
In my case, the record was obviously scratched but it played just fine.