Woody Allen Makes a Giant Change for 'Cafe Society,' His Amazon Film

'Cafe Society,' which just opened the Cannes Film Festival, marks the first time the auteur went digital. 

Andreas Rentz / Getty

Writer/director Woody Allen’s newest film, a neurotic Hollywood fairy tale from Amazon Studios called Cafe Society, just opened the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival. It’s the third time one of Allen’s films has gotten the esteemed film festival underway, but is a first for Allen in other ways.

Cafe Society is classic Allen — Jesse Eisenberg stars as a young New York man who heads west to California during the 1930s to make it big in the movie business — but is a major technological departure. The film marks the first time the filmmaker has not shot on actual film celluloid, and instead, used advanced digital cameras. It’s a big move for any legendary filmmaker, and even more so for one who is 80 years old. But he had some help from another celluloid legend, Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, whose highly stylized images have revolutionized the industry in movies like Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor. The pair worked together to recreate Hollywood’s lavish golden age with the Sony CineAlta F65 camera.

Allen and Storaro elaborated on the jump from celluloid to ones-and-zeroes at the film’s Cannes press conference earlier today.

“We went through the exact same motions as shooting with celluloid,” Allen said at the press conference, per Indiewire. “Digital can be very beautiful as you can see. To me it was the exact same thing, no compromises, nothing different.”

This typically apathetic response should not come as a surprise to people who have listened to Allen talk about filmmaking before. He usually answers adoring questions about his movies with replies that downplay any investment in the actual filmmaking, and he’s probably telling the truth — but for a guy that’s still churning out a movie a year at his age, it’s refreshing to see him willing to try new things. It’s what led him to join forces with streaming platform Amazon Studio in the first place, though the filmmaker still demanded a theatrical release. Cafe Society will bow in theaters on July 15.

But what’s next? CGI? A performance capture character meant to look like Woody so he doesn’t have to keep casting Jesse Eisenberg as the Woody Allen surrogate character? Something more adventurous than a story about a neurotic guy meeting a woman who changes his outlook? Only time will tell.

Storaro’s response about the digital change seemed to be more resonant. “You have to use the language of images,” he said, “and digital is part of the language of progress.” When one of the best cinematographers in history admits that digital is the future, you might have to listen, even as you mourn for the film format.

But what about the movie itself? Reviews out of Cannes seem to suggest Allen’s newest movie is a Cliffs Notes mashup of everything he’s known for, but very enjoyable, nonetheless.

Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian writes:

“Its a very nice confection, with echoes of much of his previous work; there’s something of Bullets Over Broadway, and the plot contrivance of a convenient brother in the mafia, and subsequent guilty anguish, is very like Crimes and Misdemeanors, although the idea appears in a lighter and more cursory form. In many ways, Café Society could be said to restate almost all of the key ideas and themes of Woody Allen’s films in one way or another: life, chance, fate, love, guilt.”

Owen Gliebermann’s review in Variety said:

“Mostly, Café Society leaves you dreaming of the movie it might have been had Woody Allen made it by doing what he’s done in his best work: nudging himself out of his comfort zone.”

Per Ben Croll in The Wrap:

“The film’s showbiz-in-the-Golden Age focus will get people talking about Radio Days. The gangsters and nightclubs feel a lot like Bullets Over Broadway. And Lord knows the novel-like structure and shared narrators will yield countless unfavorable comparisons to Hannah and Her Sisters (to be fair, most films can be unfavorably compared to that masterpiece).”

Eric Kohn on Indiewire said:

“As a high fantasy that romanticizes many aspects of its period at once, “Cafe Society” may not be Allen’s most original work, but it’s one of his snazziest efforts in some time.”

In The Independent, Geoffrey Macnab said:

“ It has an intricately plotted screenplay and a beguiling jazz soundtrack. The film may be a little lacking in oomph but it should still make Allen’s fans happy enough. After all, it carries plenty of echoes of his previous movies.”

Cafe Society will stream exclusively on Amazon Prime sometime after its July theatrical release.

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