Is unconditional love a blessing or a disease? Can emotional commitment enslave both the lover and the beloved? Is it fair to assume that the object of one’s obsession will share that feeling forever and at full incandescence? And if the beloved moves on, how does a person continue to live, to breathe, when her heart has been broken? With wondrous power and subtlety, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore poses these conundrums and doubles down on them, by telling two stories, in two times and on two continents, of women who love not wisely but too well. Montreal, in the quarter-century leading up to today: Antoine (Kevin Parent), a club DJ, is “a man who had every reason to be happy and the lucidity to realize it.” At 40, in the first rapture of passion with his blond girlfriend Rose (Evelyne Brochu), he feels his ecstasy is contagious: “Total strangers would look at me, as if they could read the joy inside.” Antoine is divorced from Carole (Hélène Florent), his wife of some 15 years and his sweetheart from their early teens. For all that time, these two had seemed fated to a lifelong love. “If you fall, I pick you up,” she had told him. “If I fall you pick me up.” But he didn’t fall; he slipped away into Rose’s arms. Carole is not so much resentful as stunned at Antoine’s departure; it is outside the natural order, a crime against destiny. “I’ve never kissed another man,” she tells a friend. “I’ve had one love in my life.” She calls Antoine her “twin flame” and wonders how his own love, his twin-ship to her, could be so abruptly extinguished.
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Paris, 1969: When Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) gives birth to a boy with Down syndrome, her husband leaves her. That’s fine with her: she can now devote every moment of her life, every ounce of her energy, to loving Laurent (Marin Gerrier), a precious child who adores her as much as she does him. Her love is exalting and exclusive, a room with no view, only two blissful inmates. So when at seven he finds a soul mate in his blond schoolmate Véronique (Alice Dubois), also with Down syndrome — and tells his mom, “I love her like I love you” — Jacqueline feels no less bereft and betrayed than Carole. She reacts as if her son has committed adultery. She tells her son, “I will make you forget her.”’
(READ: Richard Schickel on Vanessa Paradis in The Girl on the Bridge)
The Montreal-born Vallée came to international attention in 2005 with his complex and affectionate family drama C.R.A.Z.Y., before making the Anglophile costume drama The Young Victoria. In this astonishing Franco-Canadian romance — which won three Genie awards (the Canadian Oscars), including a Best Actress citation for Paradis — he has returned to his homeland and native language with ideas as bold as his technique. Café de Flore intercuts the stories of Carole and Jacqueline, then unites them in a daring leap of faith. The viewer will have to leap with Vallée, but his film is so sure-footed, emotionally and cinematically, that that risky step seems like walking on air in a beautiful dream.(READ: Mary Pols’ review of The Young Victoria)Sweet and amusing moments abound. When the abandoned wife and the new girlfriend meet by chance, a wide range of possible reactions — ignoring her, confronting her — plays quickly over Carole’s face, before the two women finally exchange an amiable kiss. Each of the film’s major characters and many of the minor ones — Antoine’s father, who’d almost rather have lost his straying son than his beloved daughter-in-law; or Carole and Antoine’s elder daughter, so similar in looks to her mother than she also feels deserted — are as fully drawn as friends we have known for ages.
Taking its deep resonance from the ardor and anguish on Jacqueline’s and Carole’s strong faces, and from the undeniable bond of two children, or two adults, who find each other against the odds, Café de Flore is generous to all its characters, and to the audience as well. Perhaps a man or a child isn’t worth devoting one’s whole love to, but some films are. This one is.