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Woody Allen's sexist society

  • 26 October 2016


Cafe Society (M). Director: Woody Allen. Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Anna Camp, Blake Lively. 97 minutes

Perhaps it is the high egocentricity of Woody Allen's films (he serves as narrator here) that makes it difficult to separate the man from his work. More so even than Roman Polanski, the allegations of sexual abuse that have been levelled at Allen in life lend an unsavoury flavour to his art. Even revisiting Annie Hall these days, Allen's classic and endlessly innovative 1977 romantic comedy is tainted retrospectively by a sneaking sense of sexism, if not outright misogyny.

Early in Café Society, Allen's protagonist, Bobby (Eisenberg) — a lonely blue-collar New Yorker recently arrived in Hollywood in the 1930s — hesitantly enlists the services of a prostitute, Candy (Camp). Candy, however, is running late, and by the time she arrives, for Bobby the mood has passed. We are then subject to long, incredulous minutes of Candy weeping and begging Bobby to sleep with her, while he attempts to simply pay and dismiss her.

Presumably, the scene is intended to be darkly comic, and to paint Bobby as a basically romantic creature, for whom sex is not an end in itself but necessarily an expression of intimacy. But the scene leaves a sour taste. Struggling, would-be actress Candy never features again — she's summoned from the margins to serve the development of Bobby's character, then shifted back to the margins, out of sight and out of mind. It is emblematic of the film's attitude to its female characters.

Bobby is in love with Vonnie (Stewart), the secretary of his Hollywood bigwig uncle Phil (Carell). Vonnie is drawn to Bobby too, sharing with him a cynicism towards the superficial glamour of Hollywood. The problem is she is also engaged in an affair with her much older, married boss, Bobby's uncle. That this young, strong, freethinking woman might love not one but both of these schmucky, self-involved men beggars belief. But this is a Woody Allen film after all.

The comedic and dramatic implications of this awkward love triangle unfold against a lusciously recreated 1930s Los Angeles and New York. The film's tone is light and farcical, and the performances wonderful. But the laughs are few and far between, as the sour taste persists. Later, we are invited to feel sorry for Bobby as he becomes 'stuck' in a marriage to a woman (Lively) who is not his