CANNES, FRANCE – MAY 11: Blake Lively, Woody Allen and Kristen Stewart attend the ‘Cafe Society’ Photocall during The 69th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 11, 2016 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Mike Marsland/Mike Marsland/WireImage)
  • Festivals

Cannes 2016: Woody Opens the Festival

The 69th Cannes Film Festival kicked off  with Woody Allen’s Café Society which has its morning press screening in advance of the evening gala and the customary glitz of the montée des marches. The 80 year-old director, a festival favorite, climbed the red-carpeted steps of the Palais du Cinema along with his cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kirsten Stewart, Blake Lively and Corey Stoll (Steve Carell and Parker Posey also play in the film but did not make the trip to the Croisette).

At the press conference following the screening  Allen reiterated his opposition to the idea of competitive festivals “I don’t believe in competition for artistic things,” he said. “Look, a jury will award a film — they’ll call it the best film. I’ll find it the most boring film. Someone else finds my films boring. Someone else loves it. It’s all very subjective.” That widely shared truism does not nevertheless diminish the honor of opening the world’s most prestigious festival for no less than the third time.

As festival director Thierry Fremaux told Reuters, "When we will be old we will tell our children you know I was living at a time when Woody Allen's films were coming out, and I think he's one of the greatest auteurs." And no matter the reception for his individual films which can vary widely in tone and subject, there is little question that this Cecil B. deMille Award recipient (2014) is a treasure of world cinema.

His latest effort “is a romance” Allen told the HFPA, then added:  “I hope you like it I never stand behind my films and say ‘you’re gonna love this’. You have to see my film and either like it or not like it. I’m always disappointed in what I do and l always think I can do better and I screwed up…”

The film could indeed be thought of as a wistful romantic comedy told by Woody Allen in “book form” including an intermittent off screen narration voice by the director himself in his standard issue New Yorker. The narrative encompasses 1930s New York and Hollywood, the locales between which shuttles Bronx-born Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg). Unsatisfied with the prospect of following his father’s footsteps in the family’s modest jewelry business, Bobby travels West to find fortune under the tutelage of his uncle Phil, a successful agent in studio-system Hollywood. The impact with the vapidity of celebrity obsessed tinseltown is tempered by the luminance of uncle Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kirsten Stewart). Their initially casual acquaintance quickly morphs to romance, but Bobby’s love is destined to remain unrequited when Vonnie, opts for another suitor.

Bobby returns East and builds a life there as a successful night club manager, eventually marrying Veronica (Blake Lively). But since, like Allen informs us in the voice-over “life is a comedy written by a sadistic author”, Bobby and Vonnie are destined to meet again and face feelings that refuse to fade. The story, at time earnestly sentimental and even lyrical, is set off by the hilarity of Bobby’s Jewish family which harkens to the tableaus of Radio Days (Allen’s first-person narrative also evokes that semiautobiographical film).

Even though in Cannes Allen stressed that as a straight-up comedian he could never have given as well rounded a performance, Eisenberg is clearly a stand-in for the director’s persona – and the perfect actor for the job. In the film Bobby and Vonnie kindle their romance by going to the movies in the old Hollywood palaces and she speaks of her admiration for screen sirens like Barbara Stanwyck. And this film role extends Stewart’s range to a period romantic lead, which could in a way be considered her first (young) adult role.

Stewart is already the unofficial queen of the festival, present as she is in two movies: Café Society and Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, which screens later in the week and has already garnered much advance buzz. Stewart worked with the French director before in Clouds of Sils Maria, an underrated effort in the U.S., which last year earned her a best Acting Cesar (a first for a non-French actor). This year, as she graces magazine covers and posters up and down La Croisette, she seems poised to once again take France by storm.

See what Woody has to say on Café Society.