The unimaginably difficult state of being in love with two people — one you know is your true love but have given up out of childish naïveté; one who is the best person, after your true love, that you are ever likely to meet — is the subject of Jean-Marc Vallée’s overly florid, nevertheless-touching Café de Flore.
Antoine (Kevin Parent) is a hip, world-travelling DJ currently living (and in love) with his girlfriend Rose (Evelyne Brochu). He shares custody of his two children with his ex-wife Carole (Helene Florent), who is older and wiser than Rose, and well aware that Antoine is her true love, yet too caring to see his relationship with Rose break apart. Antoine, too, knows no one will ever love him the way Carole does, but, stupid and impetuous and young, he let their marriage break up. When not jetting from his home in Montreal to the States for a DJ gig, he spends his time fretting over Rose, who he loves too much to hurt by giving in to what he knows is true: that he belongs with his ex-wife. Vallée, who also wrote the movie, understands love as complicated, full of mistakes and decisions you want to take back, and he hits on an awful paradox: if you’ve learned from your mistakes, you don’t repeat them, which means once you leave, you can never go back to your love.
The major florid detail the film could have dropped if it really wanted to focus on that idea is Kevin’s career as a famous DJ; it might have been less sexy, yet more touching, if he’d simply been a store owner or a teacher, but Vallée often seems just as interested in making a sexy movie as a touching one. Granted, making Kevin famous allows the director to make the excellent point that all the success in the world means nothing without a meaningful relationship, but can’t a person be considered successful in an everyday job? The DJ bit is distracting; it offers an excuse for some great, diegetic music, but it points away from the emotional core of the story and toward some other movie, one about beautiful, rich people who have great sex while pining for their exes. Fortunately — with its impossibly cool professions, slow-motion underwater sex scenes, repeated over-focus on lens flare, and candy-acid color palette — the movie only looks like this kind of movie.
There’s a great, emotionally-subtle movie periodically popping up throughout Café de Flore, and one thing Vallée might have done to maintain it would have been reigning in his weakness for self-conscious stylization. Another would have been cleaving the movie directly in two. The story of Antoine, Rose, and Carole is only about half of the film; the remainder follows Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis), a single-mother in 1960s Paris, as she fiercely protects her son, Laurent (Marin Gerrier), an 8-year-old with Downs syndrome. Vallée cuts away from his modern-day love triangle to the struggles of Jacqueline and Laurent frequently, and at seemingly meaningful points. There is never any clear connection between the stories: you keep thinking that maybe Jacqueline will turn out to be Antoine’s mother, that she’ll have another baby after Laurent, but the movie is too hip, too clever, for this to be the case. Vallée means for the two stories to be thematically, not directly, related. At least up until the end, when he pulls them together with a nifty, eye-rolling bit of transmigration.
Each story on its own would have made a terrific film, one that insisted that regular people and their difficult choices are worthy of a movie’s full runtime. But Vallée seems too timid — ironically, a timidity that shows most in his over-zealous visual and narrative style — to make a simple movie about true love. Instead, he’s made an over-complicated one, just not in the way he intended.