Café de Flore (Jean-Marc Vallée, Canada/France, 2011)

Blogpost, Canadian cinema, Film reviews

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged and plenty have I seen in the last few months about which I could have blogged. But time being what it is, I’ve not had chance.

Maybe Café de Flore is not the best film I have seen in the last few months, but it has provoked my thoughts in such a fashion that I feel compelled to put something online about it.

Given that there is plenty to say, I’ll try to limit myself to only 2,000 words. This will make things more palatable for readers, too.

I must confess being behind on Vallée’s films; I know of them, but I’ve not seen them, so this won’t be an analysis of his wider work, just what is on offer in this film.

Nonetheless, Café de Flore tells the story of a deejay, Antoine (Kevin Parent), who is in a relationship in contemporary Montreal with the love of his life, Carole (Hélène Florent), with whom he has two beautiful daughters. All is well until Antoine meets and falls in love with Rose (Evelyne Brochu), seemingly a younger, blonder model than Carole.

At the same time, we are also presented with the story of Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) and her Down syndrome son, Laurent (Marin Perrier), who live in Paris in 1969 and on into the 1970s.

The two stories intercut each other, but we are not sure what the link is between them until relatively late on in the film. Here are some spoilers (because I don’t see how I can write a cogent analysis of this or any film without discussing fully what happens): it turns out that Antoine and Rose are the reincarnation of Laurent and the love of his life, fellow Down sufferer Véronique (Alice Dubois). Furthermore, Carole, who discovers this past through a medium (Emmanuelle Beaugrand-Champagne), is the reincarnation of Jacqueline, who killed herself, Laurent and Véronique in a car crash because she could not stand the thought of her son loving someone else more than her (or so it would seem, anyway).

Having learnt of this past, Carole finally decides to ‘get over’ Antoine and to accept his relationship with Rose. Indeed, having given them her blessing, she endorses their marriage and everything seems to return to normal. Until, right at the film’s climax, an aeroplane flying high in the sky – and presumably carrying Antoine whom we see regularly flying around the world to go deejay in London, Barcelona, etc – explodes.

In view of these spoilers, one might be drawn to one or both of two conclusions. The first is that the film plays out as a boy’s fantasy: basically, the plot conspires to tell the man that dumping his wife of 20 years and the mother of his children is fine and that going after the sassier blonde chick is justified and justifiable. This is not meant as a defense of old-fashioned death do us part values; it just means that men can take the women they want and women will forgive them.

The second reading might be that the film is hokum; reincarnation and the like makes of this film something akin to an artsy version of The Lake House (Alejandro Agresti, USA/Australia, 2006). Indeed, the latter reading might in particular explain the relatively luke warm reception that the film has received.

However, I think that even though these readings are valid, Café de Flore has some more interesting things to say than these, particularly about cinema itself and, I shall tentatively suggest, about Québec today.

Café de Flore is choc full of photographs. We see many of them in detail and at one point, Antoine tells his psychiatrist (Michel Laperrière) that he has spotted consistent themes in them. In many there are bottles of gin, which remind him of his father. And in others there is Carole. Indeed, in so many photos is Carole that even Rose comments that she finds it uncomfortable being in the house of Antoine’s parents, because Carole is everywhere to be seen there, too.

I’m going to argue that Café de Flore presents an eloquent contemplation of the way in which images, both still and moving, play a key role in identity formation and memory. What do I mean by this? I mean that it is impossible today to remember whether that photo we know of ourselves when young was something one truly remembers, or whether we really only remember the photograph. Photographs (and home movies) thus function as tools for outsourcing memory from the human brain; we do not actually need to remember events, since the images are there for us to store memories outwith our brain itself. As such, if our memories might actually be photographs of events that we really have forgotten, then photographs shape our memory, a process that in turn shapes our sense of self, our sense of personal experience, our sense of memory, our sense of identity.

In and of itself, this is not necessarily any great revelation. But what is excellent is the way in which Vallée interweaves images with sounds, too. As a deejay, Antoine is emblematic of today. Music triggers memories in a less direct way than photographs. I see a photo of me, I remember something about myself that is embodied within the photograph by my physical presence. I listen to a song and invest music with my memories, then something different is happening; I am not ‘in’ the song as I am in the photograph, but the song feels as much me as any photograph ever could (hence Antoine describing the music of – I think – Sigur Ros as expressing him perfectly).

Let us pause for a second on Antoine as deejay, then. With no disrespect intended to the great levels of creativity that go into deejaying (I used to deejay, relatively poorly, as a student entz rep and in the odd nightclub and wedding type thing, so I know that there is a fair amount of skill to it), I would nonetheless contend that a deejay is not the creator of music. Rather, as Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) points out in Michael Winterbottom’s magnificent 24 Hour Party People (UK, 2002), the deejay is a medium. The deejay channels music by other people and reworks it in such a way that what emerges is not just a list of work by other people but something that is by and of the deejay him/herself.

In other words, the deejay makes music his or her ‘own’ in the same way that we perhaps all make music our own because the intense meaningfulness that songs can have personally to us means that they, like photographs, play a key role in helping us to construct our sense of identity.

(It is for this reason that I maintain that Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2010) is a stylish but ultimately silly film, because it refuses to acknowledge that inception – the planting of others’ ideas in our heads – is not just an everyday occurence, but that perhaps there is no sense of self at all without such processes taking place the whole time. If willingly I hear a song and appropriate it as if it expressed my life, then I don’t see why all the fuss – except for the benefit of making a (logically inconsistent) action film – about putting an idea in someone’s head…)

What is true of music, then, is also true of films. That is, many humans feel as though they have achieved something not when they have a unique moment in their life, but precisely when their life conforms most to a film, an image or a song that they have seen. Check out any number of Facebook profile photos, including my own, and you will see great testimony to this: we present ourselves as we wish to be seen, not as we are. And how we wish to be seen is somehow as cinematic. We want, in this sense, to become light. Everything is a performance, of sorts. We are intensely aware of mediation, then. For the medium is the message.

Café de Flore weaves together a rich soundtrack of Sigur Ros, Pink Floyd, the Cure, various versions of the song from which the film takes its title, and much more. If the film mixes and remixes music, when it comes to images it is not that the movie consciously drops in visual references to other films. Such references may be there, but I did not spot them, and Vallée seems not to do cap-doffing homages as does, per exemplum, Quentin Tarantino.

However, Café de Flore does seem to suggest that film, like music, plays a role in the construction of self – and this is most visible in the Paris subplot involving the Down children.

While the use of a medium to reveal the characters’ past lives might be hokum – if you believe the story as one hundred per cent true – it is nonetheless canny and knowing. Not only does this film offer an intense awareness of media of all sorts (including the psychic medium here), but it also explains to what sense our lives are constructed around fantasy versions of ourselves, moments in music, cinematic moments of becoming light and so on. A logical extension of this is perhaps the way in which Carole uses the story of Jacqueline, Laurent and Véronique to make sense of her own life. In other words, the fantasy might be ‘false’ if we feel that we must cling to some strict binary opposition between true and false. But it is true enough for Carole, since it helps her to live in the contemporary world. And Vallée’s understanding of that contemporary world is that we are as much constructs of our fantasies and of music and fiction as we are products of a fleshworld that has a material (and thereby empirically more convincing?) existence.

That the images set in 1960s and 1970s Paris are shot as if filmed at the time, the grain of which stands in contrast to the cleanness of the contemporary images of Montreal, London, Barcelona, etc – suggests this to be true. That is, Paris is made not to look like Paris in the 1960s, or not uniquely like Paris in the 1960s. Rather, it is made to look like images of Paris from the 1960s. That Paris, then, is not necessarily real. It could be a constructed fantasy. Indeed, before we definitively do dismiss this strand of the plot as hokum, we should make clear that the medium tells Carole’s sceptical friend Amélie (Evelyne de la Chenelière) that she cannot tell Carole the whole of Jacqueline’s story because she (Carole) will not let her. That is, the medium seems to say here that she only tells Carole what she wants/needs to hear, that she only really reflects back to Carole what it is that Carole is herself saying. As such, the Paris episode could be a pure fantasy, but it makes no difference: in a world where we use and need fantasies in order to exist, the previously accepted dividing line between fantasy and reality is definitively eroded.

In this way, the medium is the parallel of Antoine’s own shrink: he is a sounding board for Antoine to express all that is within him, a similar medium of sorts who can help Antoine to rework his fantasies and experiences in such a way that they make sense. As if the act of making sense of the world required fantastical elements. As if, like the family that gathers at New Year’s parties and offers a prayer to God despite never going to Mass or even believing in God (as Antoine tells us is the case), we need fantasies just to give everything a sense, or a semblance, of order.

What really is most interesting about Café de Flore, though, is the way in which it works this conception of the blend of fantasy and reality into the form of the film itself. This is not just a question of digital retouching of images, such that a contemporary film can be made to look like an old 16mm so successfully that we cannot tell a ‘real’ old film from a fake one. Rather, this is the way in which the film jumps back and forth across time frames; unannounced Café de Flore will move back and forth in space and time, linked by a visual or aural motif that suggests not causality between past and present, but correspondence.

Furthermore, we will often see something like an image of Antoine, then cut to an image of his youth, only to then realise or at the very least ask whether this is Carole’s memory of events, not Antoine’s, because we then cut to her and not back to Antoine.

This latter type of jump not only across time but also between people remembering happens regularly. What is more, various flashback scenes feature snippets of conversation – between parents, between children – that none of the main characters (whom we otherwise would assume to be the person remembering these events) could possibly have remembered, since they were not there. Not only does this suggest the way in which we misremember perhaps precisely in order to remember (memory is predicated on an inability to remember correctly, should there even be such a thing as ‘correctness’ when it comes to memory, and perhaps even when it comes to direct perception itself). But it also suggests our interlinked nature.

That is, if I am made up of music by Robert “The Cure” Smith (especially, tellingly, the song ‘Pictures of You’), and I am also made up of photographs and of films, then perhaps I am also made up of others’ testimonies and experiences. Indeed, who has not, be that out of intention to pass them off as one’s own, or simply for the sake of convenience as one realises that the memory recalled is not in fact one’s own, passed off other people’s stories and memories as if they were their own? Similarly, who has not told themselves that they are so good at lying because what they do is actually to believe their lies such that they are not lies anymore? As such, I am not entirely separable from other people; I am not the island-like individual that sometimes we try to pretend we are (capitalism prides itself on the socialisation (natch) of the myth of the impenetrable individual – hence the hokum of Inception). Instead, I am and perhaps can only exist in relation. I would not even have a sense of self were it not for others. So in some senses, how much hokum is a myth of reincarnation? If in fact I only exist in relation, then in some senses I am only an incarnation of others, as if incarnation itself required others (which it does through the fact of parents, but I also mean this on a more abstract level).

As such, riffing from one person’s memory to another’s as if there were no difference between the two is perhaps not just confusing for a viewer to watch (and something that drives Café de Flore in the direction of ‘artsiness’ alluded to above). But it also reflects a particular and perhaps true conception of identity itself: that it is shared, as are memories, and that perhaps not only do memories evolve through interactions and exchanges with others, but that in the same process so do our very identities change, evolve and become. Expressive editing thus becomes a form of realism.

What is best about Café de Flore, though, is its insistence on tiny details and what I shall call feedback. As I watched the film, I began to see gin bottles cropping up around the place (and not just in the still images where Antoine points them out), as well as passers by in the film’s present that I think, or at least wondered, were played by the actors from the film’s past (although in a world in which we cannot easily tell each other apart, perhaps nor can we easily tell different moments in time apart, because the past influences the present, and the present influences our understanding of the past, even if to propose that the present directly influences the past itself might overstep the mark for many because it is utterly unprovable – unless we contend that there is no past, only our malleable understandings thereof, which only ever exist in the present).

The film makes this most clear by the pentagrams that begin to crop up repeatedly – in tattoos, on the floor at the bottom of Jacqueline’s staircase, etc. It is not that pentagrams are important per se (maybe they are, but I don’t think they have to be). Rather, what is important is that the elements of the visual field that we typically think of as unimportant in fact play a key role in shaping our understanding of the world. That is, we privilege many elements of our visual field in terms of what consciously we perceive; we tend to concentrate on human figures, movement, and other elements that might be prey, predator or mate. But in fact the details uphold this perception, perhaps even shape it, such that we see most when we see as ‘holistically’ as possible.

This is what I mean by feedback: we do not just act upon our environment, but our environment also acts upon us.

Café de Flore ends with a slow track and zoom into a photo of Carole and Antoine in front of a photo of Paris, in which we finally see the blurred figures of Jacqueline, Laurent and Véronique, whom we see waving at Paris’ bateaux mouches at a couple of points in the film (replete with heavy flash bulbs from cameras, as if this were their ‘becoming light’ – in the city of lights). They are a detail taken in a photo by Antoine’s parents on a trip to Paris in their youth.

And yet this tiny detail, out of focus and so easy to miss, is intimately connected with the present. That Jacqueline, Laurent and Véronique are ‘in’ the photo therefore suggests a different form of feedback. Not only do photographs function as an externalisation of our sense of self. But the contents of those photographs also speak, or feed, back to us; they come from ‘out of’ the photograph and modify how it is that we understand ourselves and the world. Photographs are not ‘dead’ things, but they have a persistence, a strange life of their own, one that we may not even see consciously, unless a further medium allows us to bring that consciously to mind.

Ultimately, Café de Flore might be Antoine’s fantasy of redemption in the face of his guilt over leaving Carole, a fantasy acted out in his dying moments before his plane explodes. Inspired by the Down syndrome kids who have the pentagram tattoos and whom he sees while walking to his plane at the airport, they inform his desire for Carole to forgive him as he faces death. Maybe, then, Antoine needs the story of reincarnation as much as Carole does to survive, or rather in Antoine’s case, to face death. Antoine imagines himself as the reincarnation of Laurent in order to be given a paradoxical sense of identity at the moment of the end of his identity, that is at the moment of death. This fantasy allows Antoine to make the literal returning to the universe – the dispersal of one’s constituent atoms over the Earth’s entire terrain – bearable, a positive experience justified by an understanding that we are all already interlinked and ‘one’ anyway, something we would understand better if we were not so inceived with this myth of individuality…

As such, filming the plane’s destruction in vast long shot is telling. Not only does its movement towards a huge and burning sun suggest the desire to become light (and an Icarean sense of doom in attempting to become light?), but it also means that Antoine is at the last a tiny speck in a massive universe. He is, indeed, simply part of the universe’s mega-mechanics. And it is as if the film’s ecological philosophy – whereby we are interconnected, inseparable, and ‘one’ – were the latest myth that humanity is inventing in order to justify its own extinction. The myth that will allow us to go gently into that good night, because we will realise ultimately that there are greater forces at work than human will.

Café de Flore, then, seems something of a philosophical film, no matter how lightly one takes its storyline, which could indeed be construed as daft if you so wished to view the film that way. That philosophy could be a political philosophy. By this I mean to say that Café de Flore could also be read as an allegory of the relationship between Québec and France, as Québec’s present, in Antoine and Rose, faces its French past, perhaps embodied in Carole, but certainly in Jacqueline (that French identity being as real to these Québecois as a song, as if Vanessa Paradis’ history as a singer were not just accidental casting). In this reading, which is imprecise and tentative (apologies), Québec functions as some sort of strange, monstrous offspring (problematically rendered in the figure of the Down child), but whose love is pure and who is reincarnated in the present and who must be forgiven in order to continue, even if this means a rejection of the old. Perhaps I should pause there; the film seems pregnant with some sort of allegorical meaning, but perhaps I am not the person to deliver it.

On a final note, though, I’ll briefly say that Café de Flore is an odd bedfellow with another film out in the UK now, Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Jay and Mark Duplass, USA, 2011). Without going into details and at the risk of referring to the film in such a way that I alienate those who have not seen it, the new Duplass movie has a similar fascination with the notions of fate and destiny, and to a lesser extent with identity. The idea that there might be patterns in the world that we do not immediately recognise, but which we can if we are attentive enough. I was struck in particular how Café de Flore features a prominent Kevin in the cast (Kevin Parent as Antoine), since in Jeff…, Jeff himself (Jason Segel) follows anyone and everyone called Kevin having believed that he received a sign (significantly from the medium of the television) earlier in the day on which the film’s story takes place.

Maybe seeing Jeff… led me cosmically to see Café de Flore… Because everything is connected. Because this is how we understand the world to work if we try to see whole. To see holy.

Before I take this blog in the direction of too much hokum, though, I should call it a day. While Jeff… shows the usual Duplass charm and involves some pretty amusing moments, it is Café de Flore that seems the more sophisticated of the two.