Woody Allen’s Café Society: a satirical love letter to film

Ellie Siora reviews Allen's latest, and maybe last, film and its success as a social comment

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I am no Woody Allen fanatic. Of his recent works: I found Midnight in Paris trite, Blue Jasmine utterly unstimulating and Vicky Cristina Barcelona downright offensively sexist. His older works are somewhat more digestible and thought-provoking, although many are often still loaded with the same monotonous artistic tropes and questionable stereotype-lead plots. Allen’s most recent endeavour Café Society cannot be said to have escaped such criticisms. It is a film packed with the same overdone themes and derivative binaries. And it is a film unapologetically accessible as a point of reference to only a very slim and out-dated portion of society. However, for once, Allen’s suffocating conventionality has the scope to read as a satire, not only of itself but of the larger Hollywood ideal that has regurgitated such material for the last 80 years.

Harking back to the golden years of this Hollywood Ideal, Café Society is set in the 1930’s ‘glitz and glamour’ of the West Coast. Name-dropping of contemporary stars constantly flit around the dialogue and Allen’s writing is overt about the driver of this Hollywood machine. Money. The script is simultaneously self-conscious of the cliche that is the disillusionment with Hollywood glamour, yet nevertheless leaves the audience with that genuine impression. The delicious cherry-on-top of this negative presentation of the fiscally-focused film-industry is that it slowly dawns on you that, as an audience member, you have come to be in the cinema this evening to watch a relatively uninteresting and sometimes often performed narrative because of the directors name and, probably also, those he has cast. Allen’s film hammers home the pertinence of how the allure of the ‘big shots’ still has a hold over what we do with our lives – whether that be how the protagonist moves to the other side of the US to find the glamorous life, or whether is be as simple as  what film we choose to see one summer evening.

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Although this is all metaesquly clever, what truly made the film even more extraordinary for me is the way this message is committed to in the cinematography and generally visual execution of the film. The angles and shots of the film are brilliantly resemblant to the visual trends of films from the ’40s. The use of two-shots as well as shots that generously play with the z-axis of the screen can be put side by side with stills taken from Citizen Kane, and would achieve stylistic coherence.  Equally, in jarring contrast to modern cinematographic tropes, centred close-up reaction shots (particularly during conversation having to do with love and romance) are beautiful visual re-creations from films such as a A Brief Encounter or Rebecca. Allen even imitates the mistakes of this period, peppering his film with blatant continuity glitches and awkward or cheesy cuts and transitions between shots. His attention to such visual detail is inspirational.

What makes the film most commendable though, and what truly gives it its substance is that Allen does not only imitate such films to reveal the decadence of Hollywood culture, he also gives this culture a humanity that common perception lacks. Although visually and narratively alluding to the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood (both in its direct  representation of it and in its self-conscious representation of it as a representation of it).  The performance of the main characters on screen do something uncommon to films of this era and of film generally looking at the presentation of glamorous allure. We see the characters switch between the person they are as performers (at social gatherings, with business associates or even simply playing the character of the dutiful wife) and the person they are when no one is watching. Steve Carrell is both the big-shot Hollywood agent and an insecure, New York born fella. Jesse Eisenberg turns out to be the charming lover but also has an awkward gait as he walks away alone, balling his hands into fists. Kristen Stewart is dolled up as the fur-clad big-shots wife who tells charming stories about yacht parties, but underneath the big coat she is androgynous and wickedly smart. Allen’s direction shatters the allegorical nature of 40s films and, thus, crumbles the perception that the dark-side of fame is something detached from us, something that we can learn from. These modern actors giving authentic performances in this nostalgic setting proves once again that it is not a setting left in the past to be nostalgic about.

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Café Society is out now in the UK.