Film in Oxford: ‘Café Society’ is classy but not a classic

Shake together a cocktail of jazz, glamour, melancholy, gangsters, fame and doomed young love, and you will get Woody Allen’s latest nostalgic homage to 1930s Hollywood, Café Society. Premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, this elegant film follows the story of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) who lives with his quirky Jewish family in New York, and his relationship with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).

Bobby sets his sight on Hollywood, where he becomes infatuated with his uncle Phil’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). When Vonnie rejects Bobby over a more successful suitor, he moves back to New York and becomes the charismatic impresario of a nightclub. His life is only interrupted by the return of Vonnie, herself wealthy and changed. The melancholy of their lost young love reminds us that people inevitably change, and the consequences of our seemingly arbitrary decisions are irreversible.

Perhaps the greatest asset of this film is its dazzling cinematography. Shot by award-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango in Paris), the film oozes with nostalgia. The lighting in both indoor and outdoor shots creates an almost gold, atmospheric glow, with warm ambers helping to crystallise the belle époque of Old Hollywood. The crowded parties, illustrious guests, and sensational costume designs also capture the glamour reminiscent of Ginger Rogers’ or Jean Harlow’s Hollywood. The set evokes the 1930s café society which Bobby and Vonnie are simultaneously alienated by and enamoured with. Theirs romance blossoms as they bond over their disdain for the seemingly superficial world of Hollywood athletes, with their business schemes and affectations. Both characters are critical of café society culture, but cannot help being beguiled and eventually subsumed by it, with regrettable results.

The bittersweet romance between Bobby and Vonnie is fortunately the primary focus of the film. Their screen relationship is both believable and enjoyable to watch, making their story convincing and complex. Generally, the acting is brilliant and engaging across the board. Jesse Eisenberg, who has an incredible acting range (having played both a laid-back pizza deliverer in 30 minutes or less, and a paranoid Dostoyevskian anti-hero in The Double), surprises us again with his performance as Bobby, a demure Jewish mensch with obvious characteristics of Woody Allen himself – including, it seems, his voice and intonation. The comic energy of performances by Eisenberg, Corey Stoll (as Bobby’s gangster brother Ben) and Jeannie Berlin (Bobby’s mother) also injects brilliant humour into the film.

Although it does not have the flowing comedy of the films Allen co-wrote with Marshall Brickman — Annie Hall, Manhattan and Sleeper — the comedy is subtle and includes the occasional joke on mortality, a classic trope of Allen’s dark sense of humour. There are a few other Allen themes present in the film: the Jewish protagonist and his dysfunctional family; Allen’s fascination with affairs; the contrast between Los Angeles and New York; and an ending that is ample but inconclusive. Allen’s voice as the narrator is also a special touch in the film, and although critical opinion about it has been largely negative, I thought his participation was refreshing, and an endearing nod to Allen fans. It is a clever way of integrating him into the film without “acting” as such (though Allen is not shy of acting at eighty — he is appearing in Amazon’s Crisis in Six Scenes later this year). The narration sparkles with a prose akin to an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, making the world seem like a fine story full of sun, fascinating people and relationships doomed by practicalities.

Image: Georges Biard

The drawback to Café Society is not a gaping cinematic flaw, but its dissimilarity to the rest of the classic Woody Allen corpus. For example, of all the things that Allen films could be accused of, lack of character development is certainly not one. But here, Eisenberg’s character is not entirely clear-cut — at times he is jittery and nervous like many of Allen’s male protagonists, but he is confident enough to call a prostitute only to send her back in a Holden Caulfield way, telling her: ‘I’m so lonely I would have been happy just to talk, but now I’m even too tired for that’. Equally it seems a contradiction that Bobby and Vonnie are hyper-critical of café society, but allow themselves to be absorbed into the culture completely, without much resistance or conflict, and this character inconsistency does not seem to be deliberate. It is essential to the plot to depict young people being charmed into a structure that they know is essentially shallow and which they secretly abhor, but the lack of examination of such a key issue is out of character for Allen. In general, characters without consistent, critical commentary are a marked contrast from the full-bodied personalities we usually expect in Allen’s films such as Gil (Midnight in Paris), Cecilia (The Purple Rose of Cairo) or Allen (Play it again, Sam) whose opinions are transparent, memorable and provocative.

Allen’s preoccupations with philosophy, particularly the meaning of life and death, are some of the most insightful and amusing parts of his films, such as in Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, or Midnight in Paris. Café Society, however, does not live up to its predecessors in this regard. The plot has a clear narrative arc, and the dialogue is very easy to follow. This may be an advantage to some, but I value the active rather than passive experience of watching an Allen film, which engages the audience in a kind of dialogue as it investigates questions, intellectual references, outlandish characters and absurdist situations. Potentially fertile ground like the broken relationship between Bobby and Vonnie, or their assimilation into the café society with its Epicurean lifestyle, are surprisingly treated without any great introspection, which is unusual for Allen. Though this may not be an out-right issue, I think that many of Allen’s signature films have spoilt us with his talent for drawing sense from the senseless, so that I was left craving for more internal monologues or deeper commentary at particular points of the film — opportunities which are simply passed by.

It could be argued that comparing Allen to Allen is unhelpful — although his work contains recurring themes and concepts, the products themselves are wholly individual. This seems to be increasingly the case as he grows older and branches further into new possibilities, scenery, technology and cast. The creation of something individually new instead of a genre of similar films should also not come as a surprise, given Allen’s reputation as a prolific human factory of ideas. However, culturally speaking there is a certain corpus of films that have come to characterise Allen’s unique franchise and in my opinion, Café Society stands akin to but outside that. The kookiness, staccato dialogue, metaphysical musings, surrealism — let alone magic realism of his earlier ‘classic’ films — seem to belong to the past and I am all too nostalgic for that.

There is no doubt that Café Society is a delightful film visually — the silk, sun, and sumptuous parties combine like a perfectly presented dessert for the audience. However, enthusiasts of the more “classic” Allen films will be disappointed to find that there is no substantial meat or main course to follow in the form of erudite conversations, bizarre scenarios, relatable characters or cynical humour. It scores a middle of the road status in the Woody Allen canon — being aptly entertaining but not the most perfect showcase of Allen’s ability.

Pratibha Rai

Pratibha Rai is an Oxford University alum, having graduated from Theology at St. Peter’s College in 2015. She has eclectic interests in Gothic Literature, Lord Byron’s Venice, Tragicomedy and Keats’s Odes. As well as enjoying the many cultural delights of Oxford, she is preparing to study for a Masters. 

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