Cafe Society is Woody Allen on good form in a stylish love letter to 1930s Hollywood and New York.
The Golden Ageby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Hollywood is a land perennially shot in a golden glow of nostalgia – and featuring the big-star name checks, the luxurious mansions, the swish offices, the barked quick-fire deals. New York is Greenwich Village, Central Park, brashness but also a different kind of culture.
The film is a comedy, but life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer, one Allen’s characters says. And Allen turns the screws on his characters in a series of emotional twists and turns, forcing three of them to choose both between their partners and between the contrasting lifestyles in Hollywood and Manhattan. “You can look at life as amusing,” Allen said at the press conference following the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, “but in the case of a husband cheating on his wife, it’s also farcical and there’s a sad element.” It’s also a romance between people as well as places. The film covers events over several years and Allen narrates it himself in a wry, detached voiceover. “I wanted the to have the scope and structure of a novel,” he said at the press conference. “So it’s the voice of the author.”
Naive, gauche Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Beverly Hills from his working-class New York Jewish family looking for something more interesting than working in his father’s business. “The character is nothing like me,” Allen said, “but I grew up in a bickering Jewish family that spoke Yiddish, so I write about what I know.” He hopes to get a break with with his hotshot agent uncle Phil (vigorous, driven Steve Carell), who’s connected with all the top talent and movie moguls in Hollywood. The 1930s was dominated by studios, a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog world, as Allen described it. Bobby falls in love with Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Her frank dislike of the movie world’s superficiality – it’s “boring and nasty” – makes her fresh and appealing.
Though she’s attracted to Bobby, this leads nowhere because she has a secret boyfriend. In tete a tetes, there’s suspense as we know relationship secrets will be revealed and confessions made. A framed letter from Rudolf Valentino is the catalyst for revelation, leading to emotional complication upon complication. Though Vonnie is tempted to marry Bobby and go back to New York with him, she chooses her other suitor. Bobby goes back to New York to manage his gangster brother Ben’s nightclub, becoming rich and successful and marrying another Vonnie (Blake Lively). Then, one evening, in walks the past in the form of the first Vonnie, though maybe now she has turned into everything she hated. Still drawn together, Bobby and Vonnie number one have to make a decision about the direction their lives will take or accept that dreams are dreams. Meanwhile, Ben’s gangster activities start to implode.
The film is pervaded by an authentic jazz soundtrack with classic songs that comments on the action – I only have eyes for you, Manhattan. The camera moves fluidly through iconic images on both sides of the continent – the Hollywood pool parties, the classic movie theatres, the sophisticated clubs and their evening-dressed patrons that look so familiar from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies and the dawn carriage ride in Central Park. Hollywood’s golden light contrasts with the blues and greys of Manhattan so that the colour follows the story (cinematographer Vittorio Storaro). The period detail of locations and costumes is faultless. It’s the third time Eisenberg and Stewart have partnered, after Adventureland and Hollywood Ending, and their rapport is evident. Ultimately, “It’s adopting a comic perspective to an existence fraught with peril, sadness and cruelty,” Allen said of his work. “I always thought of myself as romantic. That opinion is not necessarily shared!”
Cafe Society is now showing at the Cannes Film Festival