In the middle of term papers and final exams, I clung to one calming thought: in a few weeks I was going to be at Cannes. I closed my eyes and imagined the sweeping red carpets and the glimmering French Riviera. It was a celestial ideal, a dream with a cinematic tangibility in my mind. But having arrived a day before the festival started, the images I vividly imagined hadn’t quite been manufactured yet. Cleaners frantically squeegeed windows and construction workers hammered violently in an attempt to finish framing rooms and booths. I saw a women sitting at the stairway to her home, smoking a cigarette with a wrinkly frown. She looked like she was preparing to age a year in the next two weeks.
In only a day, Cannes is totally different. A quaint and touristy town is now the stomping grounds of elite businessmen, world-renowned filmmakers and poor journalists trying to pretend we can afford this whole thing. My imagination had been colored and distorted by a Hollywood fantasy, maybe something along the lines of the Woody Allen’s posh Café Society (7/10), the opening night film of the 69th Cannes Film Festival. Allen’s latest feels like a reflection of the atmosphere here: stunning, bourgeois and hollow underneath its wonderful layer of artifice.
Starring Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carrell and Blake Lively, the film is set in pre-war Hollywood amidst the pretentious parties and backroom gossip of studio executives and A-list stars. Like most films about Hollywood, Café Society is from an outsider’s perspective, Bobby (Eisenberg), who moves away from his parents in New York to find work with his big-shot studio executive uncle, Phil (Carrell). Bobby gets a job running errands for Phil, and settles into his new lifestyle when a romance spurs between him and Phil’s assistant, Vonnie (Stewart). One problem though: out of all of the charming men in Hollywood, Vonnie is dating Phil.
Unlike Allen’s two previous films, which were hated by most critics, this year’s Woody flick has a simple theme – a classic story of doomed love with very little else on its mind. The film can feel a little stretched at times, especially the digressions involving Bobby’s gangster brother and a sister that is having troubles with her neighbor. The dialogue has space to flaunt, to go on tangents without being boxed-in by a rigid theme. Although the comedic highlight comes early in an irrelevant but very funny scene involving a transaction between Bobby and a would-be hooker, this is isn’t really a comedy or satire like a lot of Allen’s work. It’s an imitation of an ageing genre, the middlebrow Hollywood romance, harnessing simple and perhaps outdated pleasures: beautiful people, beautiful settings and messy love affairs.
Every frame of Café Society is effortless – immaculate. Leaving most of the plot to the narrator, Allen concerns himself with the effervescent, capturing romantic moments in the vein of classic Hollywood: perfectly lit, staged and composed. This is Allen’s first film to be shot digitally, and he tries to recreate the vibrancy of Technicolor with the immediacy of digital photography. Melding old formal flourishes with the new medium, Allen’s aesthetic is exuberant and playful: the soft focus in close-ups of Vonnie’s face, the moody lighting and the hard shadows. Café Society is Woody Allen at his most sleepy and sensual, beautiful to behold and easy to forget.
The first main competition screening was of Sieranevada (4/10), the new film by Romanian New Wave auteur Cristi Puiu. With a whopping 173-minute run-time, which is even more staggering when the screening is 6 hours past your regular bed time, everything about the film is challenging. Set almost entirely in one cramped apartment, Sieranevada has around 8 main characters (maybe more?) and next to no lines of exposition. It takes a whole hour of the film to realize that all of the people in the apartment are gathered to commemorate the death of the family’s patriarch.
Unlike Beyond The Hills, my favorite Romanian New Wave film, Sieraneveda never pierces through its characters; the distant and observant gaze of the camera never clutches at any subtext or private passions. Because these realist films often use long takes without many cuts in a single scene, the characterization, if not through dialogue, is expressed through the mise en scène. Although there are moments of virtuoso camerawork, particularly during the sequences where the camera 360-pans to “cut” between different conflicts around the apartment, the film never gets beyond the banal, never digs deep enough to evoke something that is beyond what we can see on screen.
After being exhausted by the Sieranevada screening, I walked through the winding and narrow streets, past the vast assortment of coffee shops and fancy restaurants. It’s all very picturesque, as fantastical with your own eyes as it is through the lens of a camera.
Note: If you want to attend Cannes vicariously, Jordan Ruimy and I will be writing daily festival reports, keeping you up-to-date with reviews of the most anticipated films.