Judge Joel Pearce prefers his coffee black.
A tasty French blend.
Actor/director/writer Matthieu Kassovitz (Amelie) has never been afraid to confront racism in France. From the edgy, confrontational intensity of Hate to the chilling eugenics of the villains in Crimson Rivers, racially charged issues have always run through his films. While these themes don't fit as smoothly into a comedy, Café au Lait is certainly unlike any other romantic comedy ever made.
Facts of the Case
Felix (Matthieu Kassovitz), a Jewish bike messenger from a poor family, meets up with Jamal (Hubert Koundé, Hate) in an apartment complex, both on their way to visit their girlfriends. When they both arrive at the same door, Lola (Julie Maudeuch, Hate) explains that she is pregnant, and that either of them could be the father. Both men, understandably upset, flee the scene with no intention of returning. Before long, though, each of them comes to realize how much he loves Lola, and so they have to come up with some living arrangement that they can all live with.
A word of caution: Café au Lait is one of the most confrontational comedies I have ever seen. This is not like The Birdcage or Three Men and a Baby, that worked hard to make unconventional family arrangements palatable and acceptable. No apology is made for Lola's indecision, and Kassovitz doesn't really care whether or not we get on board and embrace the idea of the three of them living together. Racial tension is key here, as well as people's responses when they get cornered into bad situations because of their own decisions.
One of Kassovitz' great successes in the film is in his destruction of racial stereotypes. Felix is a rap-loving loser from a poor neighborhood, grown up without a father and hanging out with his drug-dealing, kickboxing brother (Vincent Kassel, Brotherhood of the Wolf). The black Muslim Jamal is the wealthy son of a diplomat who has never had to work a day in his life. Both men are suspicious of each other, fully aware of the roles they are meant to play in society. Lola's poverty is an issue for Jamal, which holds him back from telling his family. Lola's ethnicity prevents Felix from introducing her to his grandparents. All three of the main cast members bring humanity to their roles, become sympathetic characters in a script with no heroes or villains.
The challenges the characters face are also handled well. Kassovitz feels equally comfortable filming the life of either of these men, and their problems and issues are plausible. Although Lola's pregnancy makes it harder for Felix to commit to her, his commitment to her is something they would have had to work out at some point anyway. He is a complete loser, incapable of holding down even his job as a bike messenger. Jamal also has serious issues to work through. Though he is faster to commit to Lola, he is selfish and spoiled. He has clearly never made serious decisions for himself, something he'll have to do to become the child's father. Lola is forced into a human decision. Most women in romantic comedies need to make the choice between the bad guy that they are infatuated with and the good guy that will actually treat them well. There is no such simplicity here. Lola can't choose between the two men, because each of them has strengths and weaknesses. While the eventual solution is less plausible, life is full of difficult decisions and conflicts, none of which lead to "happily ever after." Café au Lait embraces that truth, and it's a much stronger film for it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The direction of the film fails to impress. Great looking shots show that Kassovitz was well on his way to learning how to shoot a film. Bland-looking sequences indicate time and budget constraints, or simply suggest a young filmmaker still building on his craft.
Café au Lait feels disjointed. In theory, I like the idea of dealing with racial issues in a comedy. The tone can be less confrontational than a drama, and a whole lot less preachy. This production is all over the map, though, never allowing the film to gel. The personal conflicts of the characters don't fit the romantic comedy mold, but the conclusion ties everything off too neatly. There are nice physical comedy moments as well as the biting wit of the verbal humor, but so much of it gets spoiled by the savage racism of the characters. At the end of the film, these issues are put off rather than solved.
The transfer delivered by the ironically named Koch Vision is also a serious problem. Although Café au Lait has been presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, it is letterboxed rather than anamorphic. The video is ugly, too, showing little evidence of recent digital remastering. Dark scenes are especially bad, with no black level to speak of, terrible shadow detail, and nasty haloing. Even in bright scenes, there is shadowing and bleeding, copious amounts of digital grain, and little detail. The sound is slightly better, although calling this a Dolby 5.1 Surround track is a misnomer. It simply duplicates the front sound stage across the rears, which adds depth at the cost of clarity and accuracy. Only a few trailers have been included on the disc.
Café au Lait is a hard sell. While it has great moments and a keen eye for difficult situations and decisions, it's also a messy early work that never comes together the way it should. Thanks to the thoroughly ugly transfer, I can't recommend this for purchase by anyone. A big part of the problem is the English title: Marketing it as a serious film with the original title of Métisse would have given audiences a better understanding of what to expect.
There is enough good in Café au Lait to let it go, but I don't want it living in my neighborhood.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
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