Review: Café Society (2016)

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At the spectacularly prestigious and lavish parties that Café Society derives its name from; conversations drip with pomposity and weary wisdom, drinks flow with an unwavering freedom and the omnipresent narrator goes on amusing tangents about the star-studded guests. Despite the overt showiness of these occasions, the new film from writer/director Woody Allen is an intimate and tragic portrait of a young romance that has an inherent fatalism, which stems from the fact that the couple fundamentally can’t change their nature because of their respective environments.

Early in the film, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) goes to work for his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) who is a much admired and hardworking Hollywood talent agent. In between dealing with menial daily tasks, he is shown around the town by Veronica. (Kristen Stewart) The central romance between these two characters is sincere, idealistic and full of initial promise, which Allen accentuates in the filmmaking. One scene that is emblematic of these qualities is when an emotional Veronica goes to Bobby’s house after her boyfriend has broken up with her. The decorated and darkened room that the two characters are in is lit with two candles on a table, which gives the scene a dusty yellow and black visual scheme that at once represents the promise of romance with the former colours and a hint of the unknown with the use of the latter colours.

At the same time, both the actors make the central romance engaging and emotionally resonating. Initially, Jesse Eisenberg is an excellent stand-in for Woody Allen, with his neurotic and pesky manner. However, Eisenberg’s transcends this early impression and imbues Bobby with a sense of captivating innocence that manifests itself in a steadfast surety and sincerity. One the one hand, these qualities make for amusing ironies as the young man is a listening ear and advisor of his uncle’s love life. More crucially, these traits represent his earnest commitment to Veronica, which makes him endearing to the audience.

Like with his framing of Marion Cotillard in Midnight in Paris, Allen makes Kristen Stewart captivating and a real starlet of the silver screen. While in Paris, it seemed like an accidental transcendent quality that primarily came from the appealing nature of Cotillard. In Society, it seems like a purposeful construction as some scenes celebrate Hollywood actresses of yesteryear. In the tail end of the picture, there is a scene where Veronica confesses her lingering feelings for Bobby. One of the things she expresses is that she still dreams of him. After this confession, Stewart then closes her eyes and continues talking as though she is experiencing his presence in a lucid dream.

The scene conjured to mind, many candid and melodramatic scenes from cinema’s great past. It was almost as though Allen had convinced me that if I were watching this scene in fifty years time, then I would be looking at it with the same fondness and reverence that I would if I saw Kim Novak from Vertigo or Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago. Stewart impresses with her counter-intuitive choices and her subtle facial expressions that reveal insight and perceptual curiosity.

Eventually, the starry-eyed couple cannot stay together because of the influence of their environment on their natures. Veronica succumbs to the seduction of the Hollywood lifestyle, which includes living in big houses, going to extravagant parties and the reassurance of security, which contrasts with her contrary and unfavourable opinions on the subject in the midst of courting Bobby. On the other hand, Bobby goes to work at his brother’s corrupt and infamous club, in which he gains notoriety, partly due to the reputation of the place and the friends who he met and bonded with while living in Hollywood.

The last shot of the picture which is a dissolve of the two lovers melancholically reflecting upon their lives in the midst of New Year celebrations illustrates the primary theme extremely well. It reminds the viewer of how much their respective environments have externally shaped the characters. However,  internally they strive for something greater, simple and much more fulfilling, which is ultimately each other.

 

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About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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