After a three-film stay in the UK, a run which encompassed the best (Match Point) and worst (Scoop) reviews of his recent career, Woody Allen eloped to Spain to make Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It trails his last picture, the London-set Cassandra’s Dream, by only nine months, and is now released to UK cinemas amid a wave of awards buzz.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a novella film, the kind of 80-100 minute slice of cinema that Woody Allen excels at. The scene is deftly set using an omniscient voice-over narration. Two young American women take a summer sojourn in Barcelona: Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is researching for her master’s thesis on Catalan identity, whereas Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is having a confidence crisis after producing, and subsequently binning, her first short film. They stay with relatives of Vicky’s (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn), who live the upper class expat Mediterranean lifestyle of boating, golfing and art-buying. It is through these socialites that the girls are introduced to the dark, mysterious bohemian painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who is candid and straightforward in his attempts to bed the Americans.
So starts a playful, funny and, at times, sorely bitter trip through the complexities of sex and romance, as love triangles (quadrangles, really), adulterous affairs and relationship anxieties pass before the viewers’ eyes like a frenzied game of sexual musical chairs. Allen doesn’t so much write stories or tell sagas as orchestrate set pieces and routines for characters to bounce off one another. This results in a sequence of vignettes, conversations and altercations tied together by the ever-present narration, firmly focusing on the characters.
This approach demands much from the cast, but Allen has always been skilled at finding the right people for his roles. Relative newcomer Rebecca Hall is great as the stubbornly-cynical, coldly academic Vicky, with her aggressively-planned future with safe bet fiance Doug (Chris Messina), who slowly opens up, and gradually warms, as she is plunged into a world of lust and marital doubt. Equally, it is charming to see Scarlett Johansson underplay the uncertain Cristina, especially given her recent guise as a Hollywood sexpot.
However, the film’s two Spanish stars manage to dominate. Javier Bardem is sexy and passionate, helping to bat away all those accusations of Allen’s lecherous obsession with casting only beautiful women in his movies. He is initially magnetic and alluring, yet as the film progresses, Juan Antonio is given ample depth and complexity.
Penelope Cruz, as his estranged wife, Maria Elena, manages to embody a moth-to-flame self-destructive genius with great panache. Her powerhouse performance strides along the line between inspiration and madness, sensuality and insanity, and often boils over into banshee wail tantrums. She may attract the accolades and acclaim, but it is the couple, in their bilingual instability and ultimately irreconcilable dysfunction, that provides Vicky Cristina Barcelona with punch.
These spaces for enlightened performance, however, are created by a solidly written script that is not particularly dazzling or packed with zingers, but is masterful in its arrangements and dynamics. Lazy journos won’t hesitate to link Vicky Cristina Barcelona‘s artistic quality with Allen’s relocation to Spain, as they did previously with his stint in the UK. Admittedly, the location shooting is beautiful and balmy; it is indicative of the significant tourist board backing the production had. However, the film does not attempt to comment on Spanish culture, as with the awkward representation of British life in Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream. Instead, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen wisely uses the context of a vacation, and all of the associated tourist traps, to play to his own strengths.
In the end, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is centered on well-drawn characters, who are skillfully arranged as to portray complex aspirations and anxieties.
It only falters in those stylistic quirks that Allen himself imposes: the film ends jarringly, with a ‘that’s it’ conclusion that manages to be crassly contrived yet sloppily untidy. Never has it been so clear that the director is not too bothered with providing traditionally ‘satisfying’ conclusions; he makes films on his own terms.
These may be frustrating hiccups for the audience member sustained on epic tales and meaningful resolutions, but it further reinforces Allen’s predisposition with the sparks of interaction and relation. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an amusing, bitter, yet wildly impressive film. Allen and company deserve all the praise they get.
3 February 2009