“Café au Lait” – A.J. Hakari

I admire Mathieu Kassovitz more for his intentions than for his movies. The French filmmaker specializes in themes involving race, class, and more of society’s touchier aspects, but he’s willing to spread his message across a wide range of genres. He’s handled everything from sci-fi to police procedurals, but while he’s brilliant when he’s on the ball, his success rate hasn’t been the most consistent. In his debut film, Café au Lait, you can definitely see the dude’s ideas taking shape, but it’s unfortunate that he couldn’t mold them into anything more than a sporadically interesting attempt at a culturally-infused romance.

Lola (Julie Mauduech) has found herself in quite the prenatal pickle. She’s just learned that she’s a few months pregnant, an unexpected discovery that she’s actually quite pleased with. The trouble is that Lola’s been carrying on with two suitors, and she’s not quite sure who the father is. Jamal (Hubert Koundé) is the well-to-do son of wealthy Muslim diplomats, while Felix (Kassovitz himself) is a Jewish bike messenger toiling in the lower class. Needless to say, both guys are taken aback with Lola’s surprise and initially head for the hills when she breaks the news. Gradually, however, Jamal and Felix decide to own up to their newfound responsibility, moving in with Lola and guiding her through her pregnancy in hopes of sticking together as a family, no matter how dysfunctional it might be.

It’s always welcome when a filmmaker opts to create something true-to-life that’s not an insulting sitcom or a whiny melodrama. But it’s just as unfortunate when said director falls perilously short of fulfilling his noble objectives, which is just the case with Kassovitz and Café au Lait. Kassovitz is a guy who’s been mentioned in the same breath as Woody Allen and Spike Lee, for how his earlier films focused on relationships and came with nary a hint of sugarcoating. With Café au Lait, it’s clear that Kassovitz identifies more with the latter, considering how much race plays a part in the story. But whether he intended to make a provocative slice of social commentary or bring some edge to a traditional romcom scenario, Kassovitz never finds cohesion with the elements he brings to the table. The problem is that he downplays his themes to a fault; it’s great that he doesn’t want to pound a message into our cerebellums. Still, it’s sad to see Kassovitz play hot potato with the race card, throwing out the occasional rallying cry against stereotyping that becomes silenced all too quickly.

So, is there anything else to give Café au Lait a thematic backbone? Well, there’s the story’s coming-of-age aspect, in which Jamal and Felix decide that Lola’s pregnancy is the perfect time to start growing up. The guys come to realize that their macho attitudes will only get them so far in life, a lesson that’s appropriately not learned so easily. This is all well and good, but Kassovitz forgets to induct one valuable asset into the fold: Lola. It’s suspicious how quickly the film jumps to point out what jerks the guys are, yet it glazes over the fact that Lola is actually a bit of a tramp. You never learn why Lola chose to be involved with Jamal and Felix at the same time, but boy, she doesn’t waste any time in demanding that they man up and help her out. It’s an issue that I waited to be addressed for the entire film, only to be left empty-handed and, quite frankly, pretty pissed. I’m sure the film had charm to spare, and despite the half-hearted material, the performances were pretty solid, particularly by none other than Kassovitz as poor, bitter Felix. But so help me, nothing Café au Lait did to try to win me over succeeded, its every attempt to do so only serving as another blow to my patience.

I’ll give Café au Lait credit for capturing just the right atmosphere the story needed. The film as a whole is a bit ungainly and amateurish, as well it should be; it’d lose even more credibility had there been any polish to it whatsoever. Café au Lait’s shortcomings are more on a topical level than a technical one, the right idea having been botched by the wrong execution.

Rating: ★★☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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