There’s a moment early in Woody Allen’s Café Society in which Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) sits down in the Hollywood office of his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell) and adjusts his jacket. He’s nervous – he’s moved from New York to Hollywood and is looking for a job – and his edgy discomfort is evidenced in the way he awkwardly loosens his jacket. But the move also seems expertly positioned to ensure his orange jumper perfectly fits in with the immaculately detailed and autumnally decorated surroundings in which he finds himself.
Café Society is, from the very outset, one of Woody Allen’s most visually interesting films, beginning with a bold tracking shot through the ‘backyard’ of a Beverly Hills mansion, before finally resting on the face of Phil. The sequence is crisp and blue to a degree that nothing ever is in the real world. This is Hollywood though and when Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), the object of affection for both Bobby and Phil, turns a conversation to a discussion of the reality of dreams later in the film, it’s a clear move to bring the subtext of the first half of the film right into the forefront of the piece.
Vonnie, short for Veronica, is an employee of the married Hollywood agent Phil and 25 years his younger, and the two have been having an affair for a year. Into this classic Woody Allen set-up steps the naive Bobby – Vonnie amusingly comments on multiple occasions how she finds his “deer in the headlights” nature highly appealing. Bobby falls madly in love with Vonnie, who steps into the film and Bobby’s life with a literal glow of light engulfing her.
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shot Café Society on the F65 in his infamous Storaro-Vision 2.00:1 aspect ratio, having convinced Woody Allen to switch to digital, and there are clear signs that the pair relished the possibilities this afforded them. The compositions are often stunningly well conceived, but due to the flexibility possible from digital both on-set and in the post production process, there are a number of times in which light and colour have been heavy manipulated to highlight an idea or lead the audience in a particular emotional direction. The aforementioned moment in which Stewart first enters the film, for instance, is one of a number of occasions in which the lighting and colour dramatically shift mid-scene in order to amplify what we are already seeing, or indeed feeling.
Kristen Stewart is utterly captivating from the moment she first appears on screen, holding the camera with true movie star charisma, but adding depth and nuance to a character that could, in lesser hands, simply have played like a bauble over which the two men fight. She is nothing of the sort though, with Woody Allen giving her some of the best lines, and Stewart doing a great deal to both bewitch the audience and convince them of the many conflicting emotions she is feeling. In fact, there’s something lost when she drops out of the film for a period whilst the plot follows Bobby as he moves back to New York. The film still hold one’s attention, but there’s the definite feeling that some of the electricity that had been pulsing through each scene is absent.
In some ways this works to the film’s advantage though, as Café Society is very much a romantic comedy in which Woody Allen is interested in exploring the feeling of being lovesick, as much as being in love. The film ends too on a note that is so perfectly pitched and filled with longing, sadness and joy, that it may be one of the finest moments upon which a Woody Allen film has ended in many, many years. Filled with amusing and touching writing, shot with a great deal of inventiveness and with another stunning performance from Stewart, this is top tier Woody Allen for sure.