The Cannes Film Festival went red in its face n Wednesday evening when the Master of Ceremonies Laurent Lafitte, made a distasteful joke minutes after Woody Allen’s opening movie, Cafe Society, had won a standing ovation. “It’s very nice that you’ve been shooting so many films in Europe, even if you are not being convicted for rape in the US,” said Lafitte.
It was meant to be a joke, but drew loud gasps from the huge international audience which felt that it was an unkind knock on the 80-year-old celebrated veteran, Allen. Possibly, Latiffe’s remark was also meant for director Roman Polanski, who still faces a criminal charge in the US for having raped a teenage girl many years ago.
Incidentally, Lafitte, a French comedian co-stars in Paul Verhoeven’s rape drama, Ellen, which premieres at the festival next week.
Allen seemed unfazed by all this, and went through the evening with his trademark sardonic smile.
Cafe Society is itself a sweet, sardonic story of a Jewish family settled in the 1930s New York. The father is a jeweller, and one of his two sons, Bobby (played impressively by Jesse Eisenberg in what could be his career-defining moment) is sick and tired of the business and leaves for Hollywood to try and find luck in the magic of movies. There he meets his mother’s brother, Uncle Phil, who is a high-profile casting agent -- who hires the boy to run errands for him and also introduces him to his pretty secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).
Bobby is smitten by Vonnie’s simple charms and simpler outlook in life that is far removed from the artifice and glamour of Hollywood. But the problem is that Vonnie already has a boyfriend, and Allen -- who dons the role of a narrator -- fills in the gaps in the story that is one of heartbreak and reconciliation and, yes, wit (”You should live each day as if it is your last, and one day you will be right.”).
While Allen has a wonderful way with one liners that tickle us no end, he also presents a more serious side to life in New York and its Cafe culture -- which can be compared to India’s Page 3 sort of thing that became a rage with society journalists hunting down mostly Bollywood celebrities and digging into their private lives.
Cafe Society also paints a graphic picture of crime in the 1930s seen through the exploits of Bobby’s elder brother, Ben, who dumps bodies in a pit and covers them with concrete.
Beyond all these, is the refreshing New York of the 1930s which Allen portrays through stunning visuals -- which turned out to be an apt canvas for an opening night gala. In the league of Allen’s earlier works like Bullets Over Broadway, Vicky Christina Barcelona and Match Point, Cafe Society went well with critics and others. However, I found Allen’s method of telling us the tale partly through a voice-over a somewhat outdated form of movie-making. It could even be a lazy way of doing so in a medium that can be so fantastically visual, offering a million possibilities.
Finally, Cafe Society is Allen and Allen, addicted as he is to examining infidelity in marriage and its dangerously exciting possibilities. We saw this in Match Point. We saw this in Vicky Christina Barcelona. We see this again in Cafe Society.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cannes Film Festival.)