Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Loveism: a film review of Café de Flore

Loveism: a film review of Café de Flore (2011)

Currently showing at Cornerhouse.

If I had seen this film aged thirteen, I may have been impressed by its artsy, fragmentary appearance – or at least moved or turned on by its willing displays of romance. My disappointment may be due to the commercial and independent successes of other films with non-linear narratives over the past twenty years, such as Pulp Fiction, Magnolia, Babel and Amores Perres, which have used non and multi-narrative perspectives to navigate a story’line’ through time and space. These films worked to illustrate the fractured, nuanced, micro and – at times - tenuous nature of their characters’ everyday lives, grasping at the viewer’s potential for empathy or chipping away at their conditioned inclination towards modes of expectancy. Now we have come to expect such linear-less stories. Besides, the triad perspectives of the three adult protagonists in writer/director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore work less fluidly, creating a frustrating sense of the arbitrary throughout nine tenths of the film, followed by a ridiculous explanation of how these characters cohere in the final melodramatic scenes. Before the story is propelled towards this unbelievable ending, the narrative tends to lack plot – sub or otherwise – and denies the characters of multidimensional personalities or of the everyday details of their lives, such as where they work or hang out - beyond the bedroom. Each and every affectedly chosen soundtrack, over-repeated, blurry memory sequence, distilled embrace or agonized facial expression is about what it is to be in love. If Loveism is a thing then it is possibly this thing.

We look for the connections between the two love stories, one which takes place between a weary mother – Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) and her child – Laurent (Marin Gerrier) in late sixties Paris, and the other between a recently separated affluent couple – Antoine (Kevin Parent) and Carole (Hélène Florent) who are residing in present day Montreal. The story begins with Antoine and Carole’s perspectives. They met as teenagers and fell instantly and deeply into a twenty year, monogamous partnership. Repeatedly throughout the film we are treated to the shadowy glimpses of the two teenagers as they stare into each others’ black eyeliner rimmed eyes and seductively intertwine to the sound of The Cure. Incongruously and almost aberrantly, deserted single mother Jacqueline likes to lie in bed and play with Laurent, her son, who has Down Syndrome and whom she educates rigorously to try and counteract his learning difficulties. Whilst her love is unconditional, intense and obsessive, Antoine and Carole’s love is unconditional, intense and obsessive. Theirs’ obviously has the added dimension of sex but in both cases the love which binds the two sets of characters together is intense to the point of it seeming unnerving and unhealthy. I’m not sure this was Vallée’s intention, however. I think he just wanted to explore the all consuming nature of love itself- by writing it into a relentess script, then directing it into a long and unwieldy film. Its tone was self-indulgent, like a love poem written by a hormonal, middle class thirteen year old with illusions of grandeur. You can call a slushy love story an independent drama but only if one of the main characters has disabilities and especially if this is frequently and visually counterposed with the athletic dynamism of the other protagonists.

In synchronic fashion, minus the difference in eras, the two sets of couples face an opposition to their love – a conflict in their narrative journeys - and both of which appear in the form of a younger, blonde haired woman. Laurent meets the angelic Véro (Alice Dubois), another child with Down Syndrome, to whom he forms an instantaneous, co-dependent bond. Antoine glimpses the beautifully enigmatic Rose (Évelyne Brochu) on the dancefloor of one of the clubs where he works as a successful DJ and a similar mutual attraction entails. His wife sees and knows immediately she has lost him. Most of the film tries to demonstrate the feelings of hopelessness, confusion and jealousy of mother, Jacqueline and wife, Carole as they struggle to come to terms with their diminishing love. Infuriatingly, the men (well, boy in one case) have their cake and eat it right through to the end. In fact, in Antoine’s case, his adultery is completely cancelled out by a larger and uncontestable force. It is uncontestable because it’s unbelievable and because the audience is asked to suspend disbelief on this one - or else forget the tale as a whole. As much as this twist did not spoil the film for me (because it did this itself about two minutes in), I am not going to give a spoiler here concerning the story’s climax. I will say, though, that sometimes I think that supernatural story elements can be easy writing devices for sealing what constitutes an overall insipid plot.

The most tasteless thing about the film, however, was ultimately its evangelist and unwavering focus on the power of highly romantic love. Much of the dialogue involved mutterings of ‘soul-mates’ and in ‘having faith in love,’ as if Vallée just expects his audience to process their everyday encounters of love with religious ferocity, teamed with the simplistic myopia of a sex starved boarding school pupil who thinks they’ll be in love with their language teacher forever. And this theme – the love theme – if that is even possible in a post post-modern world soaks up so many other possibilities for the way the two tales of these characters could have been told. Notions of post-war anguish accompanying primn preconceptions; the aftermath of yuppie money and consumer fads; the rich-poor divide, stigma towards single mothers and everyday life for people with disabilities were all issues which were present within the framework of the story but were somehow not utilized as possible sub-plots or themes. Even if Vallée was determined to explore love alone, he could have interrogated the complex and manifold ways it surfaces. At one point in the film, when Carole is puzzling over how Antoine has found another ‘soul-mate’ (one which isn’t her), I had hopes that perhaps the film was making the point that there can be more than one soul-mate per person (Antoine is ultimately drawn between the two women). This is because, ultimately, there is no such thing as a soul-mate, or at least not in some romanticized monotheistic sense. Surely, humans fall in love with a range of different people throughout their lives and it is part of this capacity to be moved by different personalities, which makes being human interesting and worthwhile. But according to Vallée, love constitutes: a pure and unexplainable, monogamous, dogged, one-off life opportunity. And this suggests that love lacks, or at least Vallée’s translation of it fails to hit the spot. There are a billion Hollywood blockbusters which approach romantic love in the vein of Vallée but unfortunately they often do it with more humour, finesse, action and self awareness of their triviality. Ultimately, watching this sorry story pan out, gave me a sore bum and little else. Love hurts.

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