Two new films at the Cannes Film Festival, Woody Allen's Café Society and Cristi Puiu's Sieranevada, look back on the past, with very different results.
In 1938, in Greenwich Village, Barney Josephson founded the Café Society. It was New York’s first integrated nightclub, where Billy Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit", and it was named to mock the original meaning of the term, referring to the fashionable white elites who frequented the city's upscale restaurants. That satire, and that history, are missing from Woody Allen’s Café Society.
This wistful look at glamorous Hollywood and New York of the '30s opened the Cannes Film Festival, out of competition, on Wednesday, 11 May. Café Society is less a portrait of an era than a swanky setting for a familiar Woody Allen comedy of failed relationships.
Young idealist Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) comes from Los Angeles to New York to work with his uncle, vain movie agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell). As Bobby, the slightly stooped, prematurely kvetching Eisenberg pulls off a young version of Allen, much like John Cusack and Owen Wilson before him. When he falls for Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), they share a brief, bittersweet romance. She claims she has a boyfriend who's a journalist, but she is in fact Phil's mistress.
Disillusioned, Bobby opts for New York over L.A, much as Allen famously did. As is usually the case in Allen’s scripts, all characters are clever, including Bobby’s parents (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) and Vonnie, who's a far cry from Twilight's Bella.
That cleverness carries over into the film's visual strategies, as Los Angeles stands here for the sweet and New York, the bitter. The cinematographer Vittorio Storaro convinced Allen to use digital video for the first time, a technology that, Storaro says, "enables both director and cinematographer to be conscious of what they are doing; there is no longer any guessing." Famous as a philosopher of color, Storaro previously used Francis Bacon and René Magritte as inspirations for his cinematic palettes. In Café Society, he paints two memorable worlds, using light pastels for Phil’s Hollywood brunches and chiaroscuro for the New York nightclub favored by Bobby's gangster brother (Corey Stoll).
But these enticing visuals merely dress up a formulaic story. Though the jokes targeting New York Jews or Hollywood social climbers are funny, they also gloss over salient contradictions of its context. Bobby introduces Vonnie to jazz records (she doesn't enjoy them) and takes his shiksa girlfriend, Veronica (Blake Lively), to a jazz club (she has a good time), but the movie never confronts the segregation that defines the era's jazz scene. Allen's erudite wit, so biting in 1977 when he and Diane Keaton debated art cinema with Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, today seems self-congratulatory and nostalgic.
The first film showing in competition at Cannes, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada is also nostalgic, but in a way that nails the complexity of its post-socialist Rumanian setting. Like Puiu's 2005 Un Certain Regard winner, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, his new film exemplifies the best of slow cinema. When Lary (Branescu Mimi) comes home for his father's wake, he becomes embroiled in his relatives’ endless quarrels and tangled relationships, for the most part occurring in one apartment. The camera stays at eye-level for long takes, moving left and right, following the conversations but never quite revealing all of their dark, small rooms.
Once one gets used to its slow pace, the film becomes truly funny. The hosts cook and serve all manner of traditional foods -- chorba, polenta, cabbage rolls -- but no one can eat until the priest performs the ceremonies. The priest is late. The hungry guests remember old resentments and bickering ensues.
In tears, Lary’s pious sister Sandra (Judith State) argues over communist crimes with elderly Eva (Tatiana Iekel), a former party member. Their Aunt Ofelia (Ana Ciontea) wails over her husband Toni’s (Sorin Medeleni) infidelities, which may or may not include a blow job from a neighbor (Toni is renowned as “the Mexican” for his virility). Her son Sebi (Marin Grigore) defends conspiracy theories about 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination in disputes with neighbors. And that’s not even the half of it.
Even when the priest arrives ("Habemus papam," Sandra declares), problems linger. As he walks from room to room, sanctifying each in turn, he finds the dead man’s granddaughter Cami (Ilona Brezoianu) with a drunk friend, stinky with vomit and passed out on the bed. A sanctified suit is too big for the designated wearer.
Yet, amid all these antics, the film offers difficult truths. Anyone who lived in late-socialist Eastern Europe will recognize the dishes, the cramped spaces, the frumpy outfits, and the heated political debates.