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Cannes 2016: Woody Allen is causing controversy at Cannes, but not for the reason you’d expect

Woody Allen and the cast of Allen's new film, Café Society, at Cannes.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

CANNES, France — The 69th Cannes Film Festival has barely even started and Woody Allen has already generated a ton of controversy.

I'm not talking about how his son, Ronan Farrow, penned a blistering essay in the Hollywood Reporter timed to the world premiere of Allen’s new film, Café Society, at the festival. That’s an issue the press seems to have little interest in bringing up in this context. Instead, we’re discussing how Allen, who has never allowed one of his films to be in competition at Cannes, said on the festival's first day that doing so would be against his "common sense."

"It’s very subjective. Is a Rembrandt better than an El Greco, or a Matisse better than a Picasso? You can say what your favorite is, that’s fine. You'll get 10 different opinions," Allen says. "For any group to judge other people is something one should never do, with the judgment that 'this is the best' in some platonic way, the objective best. I don’t believe in it, and I don't want to participate."

For a festival that prides itself on awarding the prestigious Palme d’Or every year, that declaration might have been construed as somewhat rude — even if it came from one of the world’s most well-known living filmmakers. Nevertheless, it was the first topic this year's jury president, director George Miller, found himself tackling at the official jury press conference only a few hours later. It was also a topic he likely wasn’t expecting when he agreed to chair the jury, featuring Donald Sutherland, Kirsten Dunst, Mads Mikkelsen, and Son of Saul Oscar winner László Nemes, among others.

"Well, for me [the fact a movie is in competition] is balanced by the opportunity to see films anew … and to watch them and watch them with consideration and then to have a conversation with a group of people like this that I already know are very, very intensely passionate about film," Miller said. "For me it's a kind of film school, it's a film camp. Yes, you can argue how do we measure these things, but we do."

And they will — except, of course, for the Hollywood films intentionally screening outside of competition, such as Allen’s Society, Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, Jodie Foster’s Money Monster, and Shane Black’s The Nice Guys.

Allen’s latest endeavor opened the festival on a rainy Wednesday evening that sharply contrasted the gorgeous golden glow of the 1930s period piece. Collaborating with Allen for the first time, famed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Dick Tracy) has turned Society into the director’s most cinematic work in decades. Some of the film's images are simply breathtaking, and that’s not something you hear very often about a Woody Allen film. It’s also probably the nicest thing you can say about a picture that revisits some very familiar themes for the four-time Oscar winner.

Café Society is set in 1930s Hollywood, where floundering 20-something Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is looking to start a career with the help of his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a powerful agent in the movie world. He quickly falls for Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), one of Phil’s assistants — and unbeknownst to pretty much everyone, his mistress. A love triangle soon ensues, with Vonnie making an unexpected choice and Bobby quickly trading Los Angeles for Allen’s romanticized version of New York.

Our hero ends up running one of the city’s most popular nightclubs with his crooked brother (Corey Stoll) and settling down with the idyllic Veronica (a surprising Blake Lively). When Vonnie starts visiting Manhattan, Bobby begins to realize he never quite got over her.

The picture features many of Allen’s thematic staples, including an over-the-top dislike of Hollywood, the comedic opportunities of a bickering Jewish couple (in this case, Bobby’s parents), the magic of jazz clubs (one of the few times any person of color appears onscreen), and the melancholy pain of somewhat unrequited love. The script is less bumpy than some of Allen’s more recent efforts, but collectively the film feels strangely familiar. Even Eisenberg’s portrayal of Bobby proves that a Woody Allen–type character is now officially its own movie archetype.

"If this was years ago I would have played this part in the movie that Jesse was playing, because he is perfect for this kind of character," Allen said at the aforementioned press conference. "I would have played it much more narrowly myself, because I'm a comedian, not an actor. I would have given it one dimension. Jesse is a fine actor and gave it much more complexity and much more interest. The fact that people think he is like me or the character is like me, all I can say is that it's much deeper played by Jesse than anything I would have done with it."

Also trying to get ahead of the curve, Eisenberg attempted to discredit the fact that both critics and audiences will think he’s just playing Allen by noting, "There was no emphasis from him or from me to enact some kind of impression."

Speaking about the film's period setting and subject matter, Allen correctly noted that the major film studios dominated Hollywood in the '30s and that it was a very "dog-eat-dog, cutthroat world." He added, "I'm sure you've read about all the film moguls and studio heads and all the backbiting, and if you've read the Pat Hobby stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald you see what Hollywood was is in those years. I'm sure it was true of many businesses — big business, Wall Street, politics — but it was very illuminated in Hollywood."

Lively was the first to contextualize the difference between Hollywood then and now. She observed, "I think back in the 30s the studios were a bit more dominating than they are now. They owned actors. Now it's more the media that is more dog eat dog, and the access people have to knowledge, and they wanna know it, and if they don't have access to that knowledge they will just make it up."

Regarding his own experience with the media, Eisenberg, who arguably just enjoyed the most worldwide exposure of his career as Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, has changed his tune on being a celebrity. When I interviewed the Social Network star at the beginning of his career, he repeatedly disparaged having to be a public figure to have a career in the film business. Now, at the ripe old age of 32, he has a much more pragmatic approach.

"It can be very useful, especially for a career in the freelance arts," Eisenberg says. "Fame is probably the most valuable currency, for better or for worse, so it's helpful in a lot of ways. It's also uncomfortable in a lot of ways because you lose a sense of privacy."

Outside of the 80-year-old Allen, however, no one involved with Café Society has had to deal with the constant attention of the worldwide paparazzi to the degree that Stewart has. The Twilight star has successfully transitioned to acclaimed award-winning roles, but clearly still feels the pressure of being a global celebrity whose legion of fans isn't diminishing anytime soon.

"There is definitely an undeniably opportunistic, hungry, insane fervor that occurs, and it is really apparent when people really don't care about that kind of stuff," Stewart said. "What drives you is sort of the things that get you up in the morning. If you are actually an artist that wants to tell a story, it's a compulsion; it's not something you want to do because you want to entertain people and make a bunch of money."

"But," she continued, "most people want to entertain people and make a bunch of money. It's not a bad thing, but if it doesn't actually hold hands with genuine desire of just knowing and looking? Yeah, well, that sucks and that's pretty rampant. Human beings are always clawing at each other to try to get on top. Hollywood can have a surface nature that makes it more obvious."

And Stewart is clearly doing her best to stay away from it. The only "studio" film on her upcoming slate is Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and she’s reuniting with her Clouds of Sils Maria director, Olivier Assayas, for Personal Shopper, which premieres at Cannes next week. Oh, and in competition too.

Under-the-radar films to look out for post-Cannes

Romanian director Cristi Puiu created a stir with his new family drama Sieranevada. Unnecessarily almost three hours long (and boy does it feel like it), the picture is a snapshot of a multigenerational family trying to find some peace as it says goodbye to its patriarch. There are some natural laughs, strong performances, discussions about global politics (Madeleine Albright gets an unexpected shout-out), and some intense panning shots that become tiresome at times.

Much more intriguing is Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical. This surreal and audacious drama follows a man (Damien Bonnard) searching for something as he travels the French countryside trying to avoid finishing a screenplay that will help keep him financially stable. But that’s just the simple logline. Thematically, the film is an artistic statement on fatherhood, sexual fluidity, loneliness, and finding personal fulfillment in a modern society.

Oh, and the footage of a live birth (perhaps the most graphic in film history), gay sex between the lead and an elderly man, and numerous close-ups of a woman’s private area make Guiraudie’s previous film, Stranger by the Lake, seem tame in comparison. Love it or hate it, Staying Vertical will generate a lot of debate on the cinephile circuit in the months to come.

Watch: Hollywood's history of whitewashing Asian roles

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