TAKING ITS TITLE from the musical motif that features throughout – rather than the landmark intelligentsia-soaked café in Paris – Jean-Marc Vallee’s bold fourth feature juggles two related narratives, 40 years apart, in two separate continents. He’s also chosen well-known French-language music stars as his leads.
Vanessa Paradis – a singing star at 14, later an actress, now best known as long-time partner to Johnny Depp – excels in a role she was seemingly born to play. As Jacqueline , a doting and determined mother to a Down syndrome child Laurent (Marin Gerrier), Paradis ditches the trappings of fame in favour of appearing plain and straightforward.
Striking though she still is, Paradis’ understanding of the role is superb, playing the tough, single mother struggling in a prejudiced and very un-Swinging Sixties Paris as if her life depended on it. This couldn’t be more different than her previous outing, the frothy HEARTBREAKER.
The film opens with Paradis’ counterpart, folk-rock singer Kevin Parent, playing a DJ named Antoine, in present-day Montreal. Antoine appears to have it all – including a happy domestic life with a wife and children – yet all is not as ideal as would first appear. Vallee’s camera takes us back and forth between Antoine and Jacqueline’s stories, which eventually provides a strand connecting both worlds. (The vague link may stretch matters a little too far for some.)
Visually, the dour Paris of 1969 stands in sharp contrast to the lively Quebec today, while musically, the film channels a similar vein to Valle’s C.R.A.Z.Y. (particularly with its use of Pink Floyd’s DARK SIDE OF THE MOON). The French-Canadian writer-director appears to be having a marked influence on himself. (Others may better recall THE YOUNG VICTORIA).
Notable too is the seven-year-old Gerrier, the real-life Down syndrome sufferer who plays Laurent. The boy is said to have made a lasting impression on his famous co-star. Together on screen, they make quite the self-contained family. Paradis has said Gerrier forced her to dig deep for her performance.
It is a joy to have Paradis back on screen – older, wiser and more expressive than ever. With three other films due for release in the coming year, she appears to be making up for lost time, having largely retreated to raise a son and daughter with Depp (the couple are still together, she has said, despite rumours of a split earlier this year). Now on the cusp of turning 40, there’s 10-plus years of experience all bottled up, just waiting to be unleashed. This is a most excellent means of letting some of that energy out.
CAFÉ DE FLORE is in cinemas from Thursday.
Critical Rating: 8/10.
First published in The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age.