George Miller, the President of this years Jury at the Cannes Film Festival, calls the wonderful celebration here in the South of France ‘Film Camp’ and I think the title is apt. Woody Allen said in his opening press conference that he never attends the festival because he thinks it silly for films to compete. In fact, despite winning several Academy Awards and being nominated for a record 16 for Best Original Screenplay he has regularly sent a letter to the Academy saying he can’t attend because he has to practice clarinet in his local jazz band. It’s a subjective pursuit and the true spirit of film is to create a piece of everlasting art, goes the argument.
A few months back when we launched into the inevitable discussion of the value and importance of the Oscars it was too easy to bring up all of the other major film festivals and you couldn’t help but discuss Cannes as well. I think that the general spirit of all of these pursuits, certainly by Cinephiles, is indeed to celebrate film, to remember why we go to the theater, and to remember why we love spending a few hours of our precious lives packed into a dark room with strangers to enjoy such artistic pursuits. Tonight I had the lovely experience of watching the opening film of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes itself and it was an experience that reminded me of the answers to all of those questions. I don’t believe that Cafe Society is a masterpiece, nor do I believe it will win any of the major awards at the festival despite having not seen all of the films present. However, it is a film that I enjoyed thoroughly and laughed, and felt, and had a fantastic experience seeing.
The period picture from Woody Allen, his 47th for those counting, is a fun traipse through the golden era of early Hollywood in the 1930’s using one of the most common themes in the films of Allen: the love you cannot have. Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby who is a purebred New Yorker who decides he has to leave his home city to find excitement through his Uncle Phil the big shot agent, played by Steve Carell, and stumbles upon Vonnie who is a Midwestern wannabe starlet who hopes to find the same magic as him in Southern California. As you can expect, and without giving away any spoilers, you see what seems like an obvious love go through it’s many ups and downs only to arrive at the conclusion of so many of Allen’s films: Do our own desires betray us and does our gut mislead us?
One of the standouts from this experience is the incredible cinematography from the Italian Vittorio Storaro who is one of the finest cinematographers in the world and writer of the finest book on cinematography Writing With Light. This is the first time they have worked together and the first time that Woody Allen has gone digital for a film. Even though it lacks the warmth of using film, it doesn’t lack any warmth from the great camera work by Storaro. In the same vein as Gordon Willis we see a perfect contrast between the dark, sepia tones of New York and the bright, sun drenched scenes of California. It really is a perfect pairing between the veterans of film and I hope they continue to work together.
There have already been some less than favorable reviews and it’s only fair to address them and I imagine that anyone looking for a huge leap in a new direction from Woody Allen would be disappointed. However, that is why I started off this review in the way I did. Why do we go to the movies? Sometimes we want to see the newest, most innovating, most challenging additions to the canon of film. The Cannes Film Festival is arguably one of the best venues for such experiences because it rarely holds back on bringing in the most unique and innovative talents. Sometimes, we just want to see a fun film, and one that speaks to us in a way that is simple and pure. This film is not going to change the landscape of the movie industry, nor is it likely to impact the way you look at cinema. However, for those who love the way the Woody Allen shows us the beauty of human interaction, and a good dose of humor, I think it’s a welcome treat.