for ‘Tribune’: CAFE DE FLORE [3/10]; FAUST [6+/10]

Café de Flore
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov

FILE under “go figure.” The four best films which world-premiered in 2010 (by my subjective reckoning) have all yet to obtain UK cinema distribution: Marcin Wrona’s The Christening (Poland), Jean-Charles Hue’s The Lord’s Ride (France), Sergio Caballero’s Finisterrae (Spain) and Thomas Arslan’s In the Shadows (Germany) – three of which could plausibly be marketed as ‘crime dramas.’ And yet French-Canadian writer/director/editor Jean Marc Vallée’s Café de Florea decade-hopping metaphysical romance which disastrously descends into overwrought histrionics, pops up on our arthouse screens barely six months after its first public screenings at Toronto and Venice last autumn. Primarily a showcase for the hitherto-hidden thespian skills of 1980s pop-starlet Vanessa Paradis – now best known as Mrs Johnny Depp – Café de Flore is otherwise undistinguished fare at best. It’s a salutary example of what can go wrong when a writer-director edits his own material: there’s probably a decent enough film lurking somewhere in this overlong, overcomplicated, double-pronged, supernatural-tinged tale of amour fou, but it’s frustratingly absent from Vallée’s final cut.

The director had a runaway Canadian hit with 2005’s gay-themed 1960s/70s-set C.R.A.Z.Y., then made a reasonably promising transition to higher-profile English-language features with another “period” picture, The Young Victoria (2009). He now returns with a slick-looking, crisply shot affair, which boasts an impressive soundtrack comprising dance, indie, electro and ethereal-pop cuts – Iceland’s Sigur Ros are notably prominent in the mix. There are also several versions of the big-band-inflected title track by British electro-musician Matthew Herbert, an infectious melody which, like the Virginia Woolf novel in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, serves to connect seemingly unrelated characters separated by several decades.

In present-day Montreal, globetrotting DJ Antoine (Kevin Parent) is two years into a passionate relationship with Rose (Evelyn Brochu), having left life-long partner Carole (Hélène Florent) and their daughters. Meanwhile in a grimy 1969 Paris, cash-strapped Jacqueline (Paradis) single-handedly raises her seven-year-old son Laurent (Marin Gerrier), who has Down’s Syndrome. She places him in a non-specialized school, where Laurent succumbs to a powerful case of puppy love. Jacqueline’s struggles to cope with this development are mirrored by Carole’s strife as she experiences hallucinations that make her wonder if some kind of reincarnation has occurred.

This is clearly difficult, sensitive subject matter, but done no favors by Vallée’s intrusively choppy, disorienting editing style, a mish-mash of crosscuts, flashbacks, dreams and fantasies building to a noisily incoherent, unsatisfying dénouement. Is Jacqueline perhaps just a figment of Carole’s anguished imagination? This would if nothing else explain how she obtains a Herbert album featuring ‘Café de Flore’ three years before the artist’s own birth. There’s considerable potential in dramatizing Jacqueline’s quest to raise Laurent in the most loving and stimulating way. Paradis is rock-solid, and many of her scenes with little Gerrier are touchingly effective. But Vallée might have more profitably concentrated on properly developing that one story, and ditching Café de Flore’s less engaging elements altogether. This kind of metaphysically-romantic, multi-layered fare can – with sensitive and imaginative handling – often work beautifully in fiction. But in film (apart from rare examples like, say, Krzysztof Kieszlowski’s Double Life of Véronique), it can easily come across as misconceived or even, as in the final reel here, near-laughably absurd.

ABSURDITY is just one among the flavours deliberately and ambitiously juggled by Russian auteur Aleksandr Sokurov in his €8m-Euro project Faust. It’s the latest an adaptation of the Goethe classic that’s also been freely reinterpreted down the centuries by Marlowe, Thomas Mann, Gounod, F W Murnau and The Fall (“cast me, blood silhouett-ah, through the ceiling sky!” – Dktr Faustus, 1986). Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last year, this is a dauntingly dense “text” of a movie with scads of high-flown German dialogue – but also a strain of bawdy, grotesque humour that mercifully prevents proceedings from sludging into po-faced philosophical solemnity.

Sokurov’s protagonist, Heinrich Faust (Johannes Zeiler) is an early-19th-century middle-European anatomist who believes that the human soul can be located within the body, messily dissecting corpses to justify his theories. His intellectual arrogance is challenged by Mauricius (Anton Adasinsky), the town’s wheedling moneylender, who dismisses Faust’s preoccupations with an airy “The soul? One can do without it. Why complicate things?” (Perhaps echoing Walter Huston’s Mr Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster [1941]: “Soul? Soul is nothing… Can you see it? Smell it? Touch it? No…”) Mauricius, whose imperious wife (Euro art-film legend Hanna Schygulla) waltzes around in an array of operatically excessive costumes – is never named as ‘Mephistopheles’ here, but he obviously fills the role of Goethe/Marlowe’s Satanic tempter. His bargain involves granting Faust carnal access to virginal damsel Gretchen (Isolda Dychauk), a character often named ‘Marguerite’ in previous iterations*. Arguably Sokurov’s trump card, saturnine Dychauk is such a luminous screen presence that one might imagine a mature, intelligent scientist like Faust trading his eternal soul for a night in her bed.

In contrast, Adasinsky’s Mauricius is a gloriously repellent creation – a deformed, goblin-like cross between John Merrick, Albert Steptoe and Mark E Smith. Mauricius is somehow simultaneously both cadaverous and obese, as we observe when he appears topless in a steam-bath sequence of knockabout ribaldry – the actor sports a fat-suit that’s no less stomach-churning for being so obviously fake, his posterior and genitals obscenely reversed. Proof, perhaps, of Mauricius’ diabolical hideousness? But Sokurov is tantalisingly ambiguous about exactly what is going on here. While we’re evidently in a Brueghel-esque netherworld of paranormal forces and supernatural critters – shot in olde-worlde tones of honey-lustrous sepia by cinematographer Benoit Delbonnel -the script is near-impenetrably opaque in terms of theology, all the way up to its disorientingly abrupt climax shot amid the geyser-spouting, rubble-strewn landscape of Iceland (perhaps hell, or maybe Faust is simply “out of it”.)

As often with this director, confrontationally odd visual distortions are frequently deployed – the image tilts queasily rhomboid every few minutes – and the sensory overload is such that the picture seems to exude a kind of envelopingly sickly toxic miasma which will certainly not be to all tastes. On the other hand, so uncompromising is Sokurov’s approach to his art that one can easily see why Sight and Sound magazine’s critic hailed it as an “instant mastepiece” after the Venice press screening – even as other august judges scuttled to the exits before the end of the first reel. Sokurov has said he wants this to be a film that “smells of chocolate” – which indeed it does, albeit an aroma mingled with rather baser bodily excretions…

Neil Young
1st May 2012
written for Tribune magazine

* A reader (François Kahn) writes: “You mention that the main female character is here called Gretchen while it’s usually named Marguerite. Actually, Gretchen is a shortened, mostly affective form for Margaret in German, and even Goethe uses both forms in his play.”