2008 // USA - Spain // Woody Allen // August 26, 2008 // Theatrical Print
C - I've kept my distance from Woody Allen's output since Mighty Aphrodite, never successfully seduced by the rare acclaimed feature (Match Point), nor by the notorious belly-flops (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion). Therefore I can't comment from an informed place on the praise that Vicky Cristina Barcelona seems to have reaped as some kind of return to form for the venerable Manhattanite. Certainly, VCB is steeped in wistful adoration for the Spanish locale of its title, echoing the lovestruck regard Allen's earlier films evidence for New York City. The new film is self-consciously a Spanish travelogue, stuffed to the gills with breathtaking sights, rarefied culture, and delectable food and drink. If the Condé Nast slideshow feels a touch ludicrous, it also seems a natural fit for the film's amorous story. VCB is unabashedly sexy, in a way that few American films ever manage, and without so much as a glimpse of Scarlett Johannson's assets, or Javier Bardem's for that matter. Allen employs the appeal of sun-dappled locales and the arousal of gorgeous people in the throes of temptation to tug VCB towards a destination that proves oddly ambiguous. The film underlines its themes with relentless desperation in places, favors contemplative melancholy in others, and far too often clunks along on contrivance and wincing dialog. At its most successful, it's a kind of cinematic holiday: an exotic getaway for pleasure and perspective, ephemeral in essence and bittersweet in its conclusion.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) are ridiculously mismatched best friends—the former uptight, the latter flighty; guess which one is blond?—who embark on the sort of luxurious European summer that only seems possible in the movies. Expatriate family friends have agreed to host the women at their estate in Barcelona, while Vicky allegedly studies Catalan culture. The summer promises a turning point for both women, but for different reasons. Cristina is disillusioned with her nascent film career, having wrote, directed and starred in a short feature that she instantly loathed. Vicky is engaged to a reliable, desperately boring Manhattan money man. Cristina is forthright about her longing for something more in life, artistically and romantically, while Vicky denies her creeping sensation of entrapment.
Into their lives ambles Juan Antonio (Bardem), an abstract painter with a smooth and devilishly confident manner. He approaches the pair one night and proposes that the three of them fly to a city whose sculpture he admires, where they will soak in the sights, drink wine, and make love. Asks a flabbergasted Vicky, "Who's going to make love?" "Hopefully, the three of us," Juan Antonio replies matter-of-factly. The pleasure of this scene and its familiar yet marvelously sensual dynamic—Juan Antonio's frankness, Christina's acquiescence, Vicky's resistance—is almost worth the price of admission all on its own.
It wouldn't be much of a film if the women snubbed Juan Antonio, and they eventually agree to his proposal (at least the sightseeing part). Given that they've already seduced him with their beauty and Yankee brashness, he sets about seducing them, but in differing ways and with varying results. Following their weekend getaway, Antonio eventually ushers Cristina more fully into his world of bohemian culture and zesty pleasure. Vicky is visibly disappointed in his choice, but stays silent. Her confusion about her longings and her plans is heightened when her fiancé joins her in Barcelona for a quickie wedding. Cristina, meanwhile, must negotiate more uncanny emotional obstacles when Juan Antonio's volatile and suicidal ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) appears. Much to Christina's initial disbelief, he extends Maria Elena a sympathetic hand, taking her into his home without question. Juan Antonio asks his lover for patience and his ex-wife for courtesy. (Thinking of Cristina's peace of mind, he pleads with Maria Elena repeatedly: "In this house, you speak English.") Maria Elena is the vision of a nightmare ex: explosive, accusatory, venomous, invasive. Oh, and she stabbed Juan Antonio once. Yet Juan Antonio still loves her, a fact that is obvious to anyone who observes them viciously quarrel. The pair are perfect for each other, and also a catastrophe waiting to happen. Juan Antonio speculates that Cristina may provide the "missing ingredient" that the relationship needs. Is this the sublime love that Cristina imagined for herself: sharing a house as one corner of a triangle?
The film's most baffling and unsteady stylistic choice is the weirdly jaunty narration by Christopher Evan Welch. Lacking the anecdotal tone of Allen's own wry voice-over work in his previous films, such as Radio Days, Welch's narration is both ridiculously redundant—"They drank wine at a little cafÃ©": Hey, they're drinking wine at a little café!—and suggestive of lazy cinematic storytelling. Do we really need someone to tell us that Vicky is regretful, when Rebecca Hall can, you know, show us by acting? That said, the move isn't an outright fiasco. The voice-over is appropriate for the film's narrative, which follows the tracings of many a pulp Mediterranean romance, with its supremely functional prose and preference for visualization over poetry. Whatever coy (or is it ironic?) point Allen may have intended, however, the device is ultimately a wash at best. It's exasperating to be pummeled over the head in such a manner, particularly by a veteran film-maker whose thematic ambitions are otherwise relatively gentle.
Indeed, nothing truly momentous actually happens in VCB. Despite the sex, secrets, and threats of violence, its conflicts are essentially personal. The story is not really about who sleeps with whom, but how both Vicky and Cristina stumble towards revelations concerning their needs and wants. Viewers who need more to sink their teeth into may walk away feeling a little cheated. I was befuddled and charmed, despite my misgivings. There is a good-natured emotional voyeurism in Allen's gaze. The film revels, sweetly and humanely, in the slow, bloody process by which people grow to understand themselves and make critical personal decisions. VCB uncontroversially posits that fresh locales permit us to reassess our assumptions about our lives, and it then has a supremely pleasurable time watching two women undertake such a reassessment.
Did I mention that this film is damn sexy? There's a simplicity to its eroticism, despite the distracting detour to admirably, clumsily scorn bourgeois revulsion for casual screwing and polyamory. Allen shies away from crudeness or silly innuendo, keeping the film's sensuality direct and shimmering. The approach is elementary: show beautiful people enjoying themselves in beautiful places, and the rest will take care of itself. There are no sexual twists in VCB that come out of the blue. The possibilities for delight, the film insists, are always clear and tempting, not to mention diverse in quality and kind. Crucially, each of the principals radiate a distinct erotic vibe: Johannson ripe, Hall flip, Bardem pleading, and Cruz a delectable fusion of fearless, wounded, and demented. The way the actors move and look at one another is arguably more stimulating than the dialog. VCB's sensuality lies in gestures, sighs, the flicking of eyes, and the touching of clothing and wine glasses.
It's fortunate that the spaces between the dialog are entrancing, given that the script often hammers its points with stupid abandon. VCB's characters have an odd proclivity for blurting whatever obvious little thoughts pop into their heads, no matter how ridiculous they might sound when given voice. The performers do their best, but their words often sound less like a finished script and more like frank declarations of character motivation and bias. Never mind. No one ever said that pornography had to be well-written. And, fundamentally, that's what Vicky Cristina Barcelona is: luscious, romantic, PG-13 art-house pornography, tamed with a splash of sadness. Just the sort of film to enjoy with someone you love, or at least someone you want to make love to.