Jean-Marc Vallée’s excruciating new film, Café de Flore, features two parallel, seemingly unrelated timelines: In 1960s Paris, we follow a broke single mother, Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis), raising a child with Down’s syndrome, and in present-day Montreal, the focus is on Antoine (Kevin Parent), a recently divorced, jet-setting DJ whose crowd-slaying gambit is dropping the bass before kicking into Pink Floyd’s “Breathe.” At first, it seems as if music is the only thing joining their emotional trajectories. Antoine’s tween daughter protests his involvement with his hot young fiancée, Rose (Evelyne Brochu, by playing records that he and her mother, Carole (Hélène Florent), used to listen to while feeling each other up. And when Jacqueline’s son, Laurent (Marin Gerrier), slow-mo peers into the eyes of a girl, Sigur Rós’s “It’s You” plays on the soundtrack. It’s a pretty tired proposition to complain about movies being manipulative, but Café de Flore sets the bar especially low.
Carole and Antoine both take over swaths of the film in voiceover, usually confiding fears, revelations, and disappointments—he to his shrink, she to her best friend. These hushed conversations tend to take place between bedsheets, on sofas, in parents’ glass-plated mansions, and at a spa somewhere in the mountains. Antoine feels he’s lost credibility as a man, to the point that his job is unrewarding, his new romance uncertain, his fatherhood laughable. Carole feels that he will inevitably do the right thing and return to her—but while waiting for that to happen, she falls deeper and deeper into disrepair. Back in Jacqueline’s timeline, her pizzazz and fortitude curdles as her son—indisputably the only man in her life—falls in love with young Veronique (Alice Dubois), who also has Down’s, but whose parents are wealthy. Her story evolves from twee and uplifting to downright sadistic, the camera’s aperture making everything look drab and filthy as she bungles every single chance she gets to not smother Laurent. Eventually, the poor boy is tied to his four bedposts by his mom after an attempted escape to Veronique’s house.
We learn that Antoine and Carole met as punkish, cigarette-chomping teenagers, portrayed in dulcet flashbacks with the heavy looseness of Levi’s commercials and Terrence Malick, and stuck together ever since. Vallée deploys a pretty sweeping arsenal of clichés in shoving his camera through the characters’ streams of consciousness: the shaky but steady shots of sad grown-ups doing unhealthy things that we have come to expect from Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Dardennes’ lightly harnessed camera floating behind the characters’ heads, Sofia Coppola’s tantalizingly empty frames of freshly tousled hotel beds, or any modern horror movie’s goosing, headache-inducing edits. The story is told out of order, but we know there’s a car crash: What’s unclear is whether Carole is going to experience it at the end, whether it already happened, or if it was just a dream of hers. In transitional terms, it’s a fake-out. But since Vallée uses it no less than five times, each time louder than the last, it comes off as an almost fascistic reaffirmation of the director’s authority.
Call it emotion sickness. The sometimes cloying formalist whimsy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet seems admirably up-front compared to Vallée’s tactile, supposedly realistic whimsy. After an endless string of breakdowns, whispered confessions, screaming matches, and public accusations, the interplay between the two narratives is eventually made clear: Jacqueline is a psychic projection of Carole, and her developmentally disabled son is a stand-in for Antoine. Her inability to let the boy grow on his own terms is a veiled vision of Carole’s inability to accept the end of their relationship. This is a stiff brew of ill-advised symbolism that renders the characters’ shortcomings and the movie’s one and the same. (As Carole begins describing her hallucinations to a friend over cappuccinos, they begin affectionately referring to the repeated dream image of Laurent as “The Mongoloid.”) But to me, the most resonant piece of dialogue belongs to Antoine, talking to his psychologist about attending an AA meeting with his father: “I can’t stand meetings. The hugging, the sanctimony.”