When the economic imbalance of social classes in America is discussed within art, it typically falls within disdain for the rich. There is not a huge stance for sympathy for the lifestyle they live. There seems to be a wholesome notion that being under the rich is a status of purity; that anyone living the lavish lifestyle is corrupt and used their greed and lack of empathy to get where they are in life. While that may be true for some, it might be worthwhile to see from the perspective of high society life. To see why the rich want to stay rich. This lust for luxury living is demonstrated in Woody Allen’s Cafe Society, where Bobby Dorfman struggles to maintain his dedication to the simplicity of the lower class lifestyle.
In the first act of the film, Bobby is forced to move from his parent’s small house in New York to Hollywood in search for a job from his Hollywood executive uncle. When Bobby is offered a job as an errand, he slowly makes his way into the high society of Hollywood. He meets the rich society of Hollywood, whom he learns to mingle with in his day-to-day work. While he does warm to his new surroundings, he still reminisces of his days in New York and strives for a simple life back in his home city. It is best shown when he meets Vonnie, a girl who also appreciates the simplicity of life rather than the exuberance of high society. Despite them both working under the same Hollywood company, they choose to spend their time together by walking along the beach or eating at small local diners. Bobby eventually woos Vonnie with his personality alone rather than his possessions or status in society.
While their relationship seems to be held together by the strong bonds of ignoring the material lifestyle, Vonnie is revealed to be in love with Bobby’s uncle and boss, Phil Stern. She is forced to choose between the two. Her choice is essentially between a simplistic love with Bobby, or a stable high society romance with Phil. As an audience member you may be lead to believe that her choice is simple. You have been lead to believe that lower-middle class love is the most pure and this should be easy to accept as the correct choice, but Vonnie has tasted high society with Bobby’s uncle and is drawn into the lifestyle. She chooses to stay with Phil, causing Bobby to abandon Hollywood for a chance to run a small nightclub in New York with his brother. He uses his new abilities from the rich mingling in Hollywood to create a thriving new society within the club. The club creates a buzz, inviting many high status and powerful people to it from around the world. In this club, Bobby finds his own love for high society. This newly called Cafe Society attracts another lover, who slightly resembles Vonnie in spirit, and ironically named Veronica.
One fateful night brings Vonnie into Cafe Society. When Bobby and Vonnie find time to be away from their spouses, they recoup their simplistic hobbies. Bobby takes her to the small joints throughout New York, walks with her throughout the park, and eventually rediscover their love that they started in Hollywood. When the option arises, both must decide whether to leave the Cafe Society behind to live a simple life together, but the decision is inevitable: they both must return to the safety of high society. Vonnie returns to Hollywood with Bobby’s uncle and Bobby continues to run Cafe Society with his new wife Veronica.
Revealed in the last scene in the film is the true struggle for each character. Each of them secretly strive for the simplistic life of love, but are overall persuaded to live in high society. No matter how wholesome or true their original love can appear, they must move upwards. Capitalism is the constant movement upward. To move down a class for the sake of love would be counter-intuitive. Maybe Bobby and Vonnie are meant for each other, but the system itself will push them in opposite directions. The reality of the situation is to be fated against rationality. We can see both Vonnie and Bobby face this truth of this on new years where they find themselves thinking of each other rather than the life they live.
In my viewing of Cafe Society, the audience actually booed the ending, but I think it’s important to see that there needs to be an understanding of what prevents their love. To never be in the position of high society would prevent you from seeing the persuasiveness of luxury. You might think that their actions are misguided or naive, but to see the life of luxury first hand can change your world view. Like it or not, the seduction of Cafe Society is stronger than true love.