Café Society full movie review - Separated lovers live fuller lives but with regret
The film ends on a shot of the back of hero Bobby's head, framed by a black proscenium arch, as he pauses in the New Year's Eve celebration at his Manhattan nightclub. The arch reminds us life is theatre.
The shot evokes its antithesis at the end of Manhattan: Allen's Alvy Singer's open face as he contemplates his young lover's (Mariel Hemingway as Tracy) departure for study in London and its threat to their romantic future. Of course, the latter shot was itself a replication of/homage to Chaplin's close to City Lights. There the close-up on the tramp's face projects his roiling mix of pride that his beloved blind flower girl can now see and resignation that her vision has dispelled her romantic delusions about him. "Yes, I can see," she admits, dashed.
The parallel suggests Cafe Society is an older artist's return to his imaginative past, especially to the romanticism and moral tensions of that 1979 classic. There are other echoes: the golden dusk skyline, the Manhattan-philiac score, the romantic carriage ride in Central Park. The December-June romance here is displaced onto Phil Stern's relationship with his secretary Vonnie, though the nebbish (Isaac there, Bobby here) still finds himself caught unawares in a romantic triangle. The new film is less judgmental: there is no betrayal in the Phil-Vonnie-Bobby triangle, just a collision of genuine loves. (Phil's wife shares the betrayal Yale committed upon his wife and friend Isaac).
The back of the head is explicitly inexpressive. What can hair say in the dark? The climactic face shot may be played as inexpressive ? as Rouben Mamoulian instructed Garbo to play her Queen Christina ? but it trusts the audience to read into it the complex of emotions the context provides. The back does that as well.
We read into our rear view of Bobby's head the elements we found in Vonnie's face in the preceding scene: a detachment from the hilarity around them, a loving memory of each other and both a regret and a resignation that their choices turned them so dramatically apart. Of course the characters and the bicoastal settings are bridged by the song on the soundtrack, "I'll Take Manhattan," which Bobby did and which Vonnie might now prefer to do.
The soundtrack is studded with Rogers and Hart songs. The composers are cited here as having based their careers on the sadness of unrequited love. They "got it right." Here as in Annie Hall art provides a satisfaction and completeness that real life doesn't.
The film itself seems a film about film. In the opening lines the Beverly Hills poolside life is described as a supersaturated Technicolor experience. Hence the burnished gold in which 1930's Hollywood is imaged and in the glorious aura of the Hollywood stars, who are constantly named in the dialogue ? without anyone appearing in the story (but some do on film). Their names transcend corporeality.
Allen's third-person narration of the film confirms this detachment. We're watching a narrative of supposed life but it's packaged and presented as a story. Allen sounds like an 80- year-old man now, even as Jesse Eisenberg's speech rhythms recall the young Woody. It's an old man's story, an old man's retrospection, in which experience has softened the young man's moral absolutism, softening our judgment of the romantic mistakes and even of the gangsters' murderous criminality, whose victims may sometimes almost deserve their fate.
As the erstwhile idealist Bobby points out, "In matters of the heart people do foolish things." And sometimes they prove right ? one way or another ? as the later careers and maturity of Vonnie and Bobby appear to prove. As Vonnie explains, she had good reasons for preferring Phil. Arguably all three found fuller lives as a result. "Alternatives exclude": We can't have everything. We make our choices as the heart and head determine and we live with the consequences. As the Stern matriarch advises, "Live every day as if it's the last and some day you'll be right."
Here life doesn't allow for rigid purity. Bobby's early scene with the aspiring prostitute is a knot of impulses and conscientious restraints. The gangster murder scenes seem incongruous in a Woody Allen film but are absorbed into the period and genre contexts of the plot. In Allen's rewrite of Macbeth's "tale told by an idiot," life here is a comedy ? written by a sadistic scriptwriter.
In this land of romantic fiction, the Ali Baba Motel is at the intersection of Grace and Yucca. The sacred ever collides with the profane in the land of Hollywood gods and goddesses. In the most pragmatic choice gangster brother Ben converts to Catholicism on the eve of his execution because Jews don't believe in an afterlife. Ben chooses to believe what the situation encourages him to believe. And if Aristotle contended that the unexamined life is not worth living, "the examined life is no bargain either." These are the ruminations of an older man.
Essentially this film shows a master artist exulting in the practice of his art. It is masterfully made, rich in nuance and complexity. "The Lady is a Tramp" bridges Phil's dumping of Vonnie and her developing love for Bobby. Vonnie is validated by the song's respect for the irregularities and integrity of its heroine. When the two Exes meet in Bobby's club later, her glib Hollywood chatter and his club-running slick are equally signs of their new lives, new experiences, but only overlays on their essential innocence when they first met and their bond and attraction that survives.
Veronica asks Bobby if he was ever unfaithful to her. His pragmatic answer is no. But it may also be true, because a kiss is just a kiss, a treasured lost love is just a treasured lost love, as time and life and art go by.