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Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Justify their love

Woody Allen takes his affairs abroad again

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It used to be that you couldn't get Woody Allen out of New York at gunpoint. For decades, New York City seemed to be Allen's muse and inspiration even more than his frequent leading ladies such as Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. Most of his best films do double duty as valentines to the Big Apple, with Manhattan's opening lines making a mantra of a sentence that begins "He adored New York City ...."

Perhaps the most memorable example of Allen's nature as a New York homebody came when he filmed Paul Mazursky's Scenes from a Mall primarily in a soundstage in Queens that represented a Los Angeles shopping mall. It may be a sign of Allen's prodigious output as a filmmaker that he seemed to have exhausted New York as a cinematic backdrop, hitting a creative slump in the mid-1990s despite working in one of the world's most vibrant and diverse places.

Still making films in his early 70s, Allen has found new life and fresh perspectives with changes of scenery. London's tony neighborhoods set the stage in 2005's Match Point for an icy, compelling noir story along the lines of The Talented Mr. Ripley. His creative juices flowed again for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a stormy romance set in Spain. Allen's tendency to overthink his dialogue and ideas doesn't muffle the sensuality of the locale or the characters.

Allen splits the perpetual tension between heart and head between the film's young heroines, dark-haired Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and blonde Cristina (Scarlett Johansson, apparently Allen's favorite leading lady of the moment). Depressed following the completion of a 12-minute art film, Cristina tags along with her friend for a summer in Barcelona as Vicky completes her academic research on Catalan art and culture.

One evening, suave painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, Oscar winner from No Country for Old Men) approaches the two friends with a surprisingly blunt suggestion. Cristina proves game for the indecent proposal while Vicky analyzes it to death. Both women gradually become involved with Juan Antonio, even though he's clearly not over his passionate, mentally unstable ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz).

Vicky tries to sublimate her emotions to her intellect, while Cristina acts on impulse without figuring what she truly wants. We learn as much about the women from the first time we see them, because the obtrusive narrator tells us so. Christopher Evan Welch's chatty narration sounds like a young, WASPish interpretation of Allen's own rapid delivery. Frequently, however, it spells out things we can deduce ourselves, such as Vicky's fondness for Spanish guitar music, "which never failed to move her in some magical way."

The characters' dialogue isn't much better. Vicky particularly comes up with weird, academic statements such as "Let's not get into one of those turgid categorical imperative arguments." Allen probably intends that particular line to be funny, but it's hard to tell when he's being satiric and when he simply has a tin ear. In films like Manhattan, Allen was able to capture the speech patterns of big-city intellectuals without bludgeoning audiences with his themes. He'd glance at big issues but trust the audience to do the heavy lifting, and was capable of wittily juxtaposing pretentious speech with juvenile behavior.

When the young heroines say lines like "Being a romantic, she has a death wish," they sound completely alien to Allen as a writer. Does he really think contemporary women in their early 20s talk this way? While filming his movies, surely his young starlets don't form such abstract sentences when they're off-camera. I wonder if they speak that way around Allen because they think the intellectual filmmaker expects it of them.

Fortunately you can tune out the script's obtuse aspects as Vicky Cristina Barcelona's romantic entanglements become more fraught. Vicky begins carrying a torch for Juan Antonio, despite her engagement to a bland corporate climber (Chris Messina). Meanwhile, Cristina's relationship with Juan Antonio turns into a minefield when Maria Elena unexpectedly returns. Cruz energizes the film like a tidal wave powering a dynamo, perfectly capturing the kind of out-of-control passion that Allen hasn't really conveyed since Husbands and Wives. Maria Elena's extreme behavior even gives the film an injection of humor that's completely different from the rote set-ups and punch lines of his recent comedies.

The whole production seems to fall into Spain's unique rhythms, with the actors giving loose, naturalistic performances. Allen drinks in the architecture and local music, especially Giulia y Los Tellarini's snaky, spritely song "Barcelona." Perhaps the climate turns up the temperature, too: Without getting explicit, the camera drinks in the cast's bodies, and Cruz, wrapped in a plush towel, becomes a vision of both loveliness and wrath.

At one point Cristina remarks that her film was about "why love is so hard to define." You can't miss the signal that Allen intends us to read Vicky Cristina Barcelona the same way, and the characters' desires forever clash with their better judgments. Allen may have summed up the film's theme in a joke from Love and Death, his hilarious 1975 parody of Russian novels. Diane Keaton refers to affairs of the heart by saying "To love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer, to suffer is to suffer."

Allen's European tours can apparently do him a world of good, but maybe he shouldn't stay too long in the same country. He followed Match Point with the increasingly disappointing London-based films Scoop (2006) and Cassandra's Dream (2007). Perhaps the quintessential New Yorker should become a constant globetrotter, making one film per new city: Vicky Cristina Tijuana, Vicky Cristina Manitoba, Vicky Cristina Yokohama. He'd definitely build up his frequent flier mileage, and maybe keep renewing his relevance while he's at it.

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