Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, and Penélope Cruz
Woody Allen, in the earlier portion of his career, was always synonymous with the city of New York. Like an ever-changing artist, lately he has been working to unravel that image, at least partway. Allen’s European renaissance has given his work room to breath, and be more expressive. Vicky Cristina Barcelona along with Match Point are two of his finest films, and the two best to come out of this overseas excursion.
While it may not be as revelatory as his iconic Annie Hall or as suspenseful and unique as Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has its own wily charm, and contains more swooning eroticism than either of the other two. The film begins with two friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, both excellent) traveling to Spain for the summer. The plot synopsis reads that they are both to fall in love with the same painter (Javier Bardem), which is true, but misleading. It is worded in the most cliche of ways, but is anything but. The love affair that Johansson’s Cristina shares with Bardem’s Juan Antonio is the defining element of the film, while Vicky’s is more of an afterthought. The two differing personalities of the characters do not allow them to engage on love’s battlefield. Vicky lusts in silence, and Cristina goes on a gender-bending sexual escapade.
Like many Allen films, a narrator offers biting commentary on the events. Sometimes that voice is that of the main protagonist talking directly to the camera, here he simply does a Morgan Freeman interpretation. Although it fills in many of the unspoken emotions of the characters, the film may have been more interesting without it. This is only because the cast is so superb.
Johansson, Hall, and Bardem all give great performances. However, once Penélope Cruz struts on the screen almost halfway through the film, she shows them all up. Her Oscar-winning portrayal of the suicidal, neurotic Maria Elena singes the screen with waves of angry passion. Watching her and Bardem belting Allen’s excellent dialogue at one another in Spanish is beautifully done, and shows us how Allen substitutes this for technical innovation.
Over the years, Allen’s career has been plagued by scandal. He has created some of the finest movie characters of all time, and sadly this comes at a price. His gift for writing an intriguing screenplay comes at the expense of superb filmmaking prowess. In a way, he is the polar opposite of James Cameron. His best films are those where he tries something new, or rewrites the books. He knows he is not Francis Ford Coppola or Jean Luc-Godard, and this has helped him make films that stand on the same level as theirs for different reasons.
Annie Hall was such a breath of fresh air because it combined great acting and writing with some of the best usage of French New Wave techniques, even to this day. Match Point was excellent because drama, murder and intrigue suited Allen’s style so nicely people wondered why he hadn’t done it before. This film doesn’t quite live up to the standards of his masterpieces, but it is a fine film filled with intriguing characters that are engaging from start to finish. And, unlike the people in this movie, it’s enough to be content with.