Sounds and sights of love
IN 2008, Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee found himself obsessing over 19th-century royal etiquette. The director was making The Young Victoria, a period romantic drama with Emily Blunt playing the future Queen Victoria and nearly every scene had to be fastidiously checked for authenticity, whether it was cutlery arrangements or the tightness of corsets.
But at the same time, something else kept percolating through his mind, sometimes as a song he knew that now inspired images and sometimes as an image that suggested certain songs. The vague idea had been with Vallee since 2004, when he was making his breakthrough feature C.R.A.Z.Y., and by the time he finished The Young Victoria he was ready to pursue it.
''I love the solitude of writing. I like to be alone with ideas and my dreams and my music,'' the 49-year-old says.
Vanessa Paradis and Marin Gerrier in Cafe de Flore.
''I often write stories about characters that use music to explain themselves and their emotions.''
The result is his new movie, Cafe de Flore, which takes his philosophy of film and music to an arresting fulfilment. It is Vallee's most ambitious film so far and he doesn't bother with false modesty when describing his satisfaction at teasing it out of his subconscious and giving it form upon the screen.
''I have a great, great feeling of accomplishment,'' he says. ''I'm very proud of the film and I'm very proud of the playlist it presents.''
Director Jean-Marc Vallee on set.
The story is split between two settings. In Montreal of 2011, an internationally renowned DJ, Antoine (successful French-Canadian musician Kevin Parent), has just left Carole (Helene Florent) - his wife and the mother of their two daughters - for Rose (Evelyne Brochu), upending domestic harmony. And in 1969 Paris, resourceful Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) is defiantly raising her son, Laurent (Marin Gerrier), who has Down syndrome, after her husband walked out on them.
The initial links between the eras are passing, even suspect - Laurent and Antoine are obsessed with different versions of the same song, for example - but it doesn't matter because both stories are told with strong, self-contained emotional force. Either side could have been told as a straight dramatic piece, but in combining them there's a spiritual resonance that comes to be represented by music's many possibilities.
When Antoine DJs at clubs and festivals, he closes his electronic set with a trademark goodbye culled from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon: the scream that closes Speak to Me and leads into the meditative Breathe. That scream punctuates the film, and gradually the lives being lived in one part of the movie resemble those in another, as if they've been sampled like elements of an old song used to make a new one. ''I tried to give the film the feeling that it was edited by a DJ,'' Vallee says.
Kevin Parent as Antoine.
''It would dissolve with this weird cutting, like a DJ working on ProTools to create a great performance that leaves everyone dancing in front of his stage. I wrote myself an editing blueprint because I want to do something different with each film, to challenge myself, and I was coming off this very formal, very traditional tale with Young Victoria.''
There is a remarkable scene, little more than a collection of old photographs from when Antoine and Carole are teenagers, which captures the way music is tangled up in the kind of people we become. Already a couple, the two adolescents brandish favourite albums and pout for the camera, while a half-whispered verse recited from the Cure's Just Like Heaven makes the past feel alive, as if it's happening concurrently with the present. A grown Antoine explains the power of music to his psychiatrist thus: ''You understand f--- all, but it all soothes the soul.''
''The most autobiographical thing in the film is the music,'' Vallee says. ''I live with music. I still do playlists for my friends and I've always done playlists for the women I love.''
Vallee is drawn to love stories. It was the love a princess felt for her cousin that drew him to The Young Victoria, and in Cafe de Flore he shows how distinct it can be, yet equally fierce. There's the love between Antoine and Rose, but also Carole's unrequited love for Antoine; the love a mother can have for child with Jacqueline and Laurent, but also the pure love between Laurent and a little girl also with Down syndrome, Vero (Alice Dubois). At one point, Antoine's father laments losing the daughter-in-law he loved.
Love, in this film, is powerful, even destructive.
''I wanted to make a film about how beautiful love is and how epic it can be,'' Vallee says. ''It's bigger than life and this film is like a fable.
''You watch Laurent learn to love through his mother, and then it comes pouring out of him where he meets Vero.''
The cinema isn't short of depictions of strong mothers, but Paradis is remarkable as a woman whose love for her child pushes her to give over her life to extending and enriching his. Members of the crew, both men and women, would be in tears after Vallee called cut on certain scenes between Paradis and Gerrier.
From his earliest intimations of the movie, he knew they would live in the Montmartre district of Paris, because it's the highest point. Every evening he saw her climbing the steps towards home, and he knew the song he wanted.
''Getting Stairway to Heaven is so complicated,'' Vallee says with a sigh. He kept the images but ultimately had to forgo the song he'd edited them to. ''It's the publishers, it's Jimmy Page, it's Robert Plant. They don't get along, they don't get along with the publishers. The publisher says yes, Jimmy says no. Jimmy says yes, Robert says no. It's a mess. That's one relationship where there's no love to be found.''
Cafe de Flore is now screening at Cinema Nova, Rivoli Cinemas, Kino Cinemas, Palace Como and Palace Brighton Bay.