Café de Flore review

Café de Flore promises far more than it delivers. Perhaps it should take this as a compliment – for something to be quite such a disappointment, it must have seemed like it was going somewhere in the first place. The opening chapter of the film gives us an alluring interplay of sounds, scenes and splintered narrative told across two time frames – we become immersed in these characters whose lives are intersected by so much time and space and circumstance; we want to uncover the connection between them, and cannot imagine what it might be.

But as the plot thickens the pace slackens, until what began as a slick hop back and forth between past and present starts to seem more and more like an interminable detour. "This has got to be good" became "this had better be good". Sadly, after almost two hours of what-the-fuckery, I was in no mood to entertain the ludicrous end that was slapped in front of me. French women may not get fat, but over-stuffed narrative arcs can and do.

In modern day Montreal, Antoine (Parent) is a successful DJ who has split from Carole, his wife of twenty years (Florent), to be with young beautiful girlfriend Rose (Brochu). He is far from being your standard callous mid-life crisis bastard and eulogises to his therapist about it. There's a lot about love and soulmates; and a bit about how his dad used to be an alcoholic. Meanwhile, Carole is keeping up a brave face but breaking apart inside – tormented not only by losing the love of her life but also by recurrent dreams that she cannot explain.

In 1960s Paris, Jacqueline (Paradis) is single mother, ferociously protective of her only son, Laurent, whose Down syndrome condition is almost certainly destined to prevent him having the 'normal' life that she so fiercely craves for him. When Vero, another Downs Syndrome child, joins his class, the two become inextricably locked on one another until their need to be together becomes an obsession. Jacqueline becomes destructively jealous of this rival to her son's affections, driving her to more and more desperate measures.

These two stories are intercut with one another, seemingly unconnected, right till the very end. The only connection – that Laurent is the child Carole sees in her dreams – is tenuous; the end (when it finally comes) is fantastical, but presented with the force of fact that casts all that we have just seen in a very different light. The move from solid drama to the supernatural is a little hard to stomach.

Visually the film is splendid, and the acting is, for the most part, superb (Paradis won a Genie for Best Actress). There is a beautiful texturing of sound and music throughout – including of course the eponymous track, Cafe de Flore. But this is also its greatest flaw. In its component parts, Cafe de Flore is powerful – even, at times, magnificent – and the nexus of aural and visual motifs linking the two narratives can be mesmerising. But as a coherent whole it doesn't come together. My annoyance at having sat through two hours to get to such an incredulous conclusion far outweighed any impression of real tragedy or redemption.

Potentially a great film, but it fell at the final hurdle.

Café de Flore at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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