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Vicky Cristina Barcelona: After Forty Years of Directing, Woody Takes On Spain

When I go to a Woody Allen film, I expect quality, I expect good acting, I expect some laughs, and I expect some insight into human behavior. What I rarely expect is to be surprised. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen’s 42nd film as a director and his fourth consecutive film based in London, has no jazz score, no New York roots, and no obvious Woody character. Instead, we have Spanish guitar, gorgeous European scenery, and a fun but melancholy tale of the complications of love (what else?) with a satirical mean streak provided by an outside narrator. This is easily his best film since the Oscar-nominated Match Point.

As the deadpan narrator tells us, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are off to spend a summer of Europe. They are quite similar, except for those choice in men. Vicky enjoys responsibility, planning, and sure enough she is engaged to a reliable New York businessman. Cristina prefers a love that’s accompanied by shouting matches, fighting, and other extreme forms of relationship distress, because she believes only those relationships provide a deep and real passion. Upon arriving in Barcelona, a swarthy Latin painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) strolls up to their table, and casually mentions that he would like to take them out for a weekend and make love to them both. Vicky, of course, is repulsed. Cristina, of course, is immediately smitten.

Certain plot twists are bound to occur—if two characters are so obviously mismatched so early on, it is clear that they will sleep together. Or so we think. Allen has us perfectly in the palm of his hand with this film, keeping us wondering exactly where each woman’s heart is located at any given moment. The directions they take, especially late in the film, are not your typical Eurotrip romantic comedy fare—this movie has higher aspirations than that. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Rebecca Hall, who also did good work in a small role in Frost/Nixon. Bardem has charm to spare as Juan Antonio, and Penelope Cruz gives the film a shot of adrenalin when she appears as Bardem’s former wife Marie Elena. I will not tell you why she appears, but her mercurial temper is so convincing and energizing that she seems destined for an Academy Award nomination.

Allen usually loves women, but here there is a sense of subtle mockery at play behind the narration. Many critics have found the narration to be tedious—I think it is an essential element of the film, absolutely hilarious with its subtle satirical jabs. This neurotic overplanner (probably the closest thing to a Woody character in the film) has secret longings to live outside of her box, but is content to keep telling herself she’s making responsible choices. The irresponsible one believes in free love, impulsive decision-making, and the painter’s bohemian lifestyle certainly seems to suit her—or so she wishes were true. The narrator guides us along these women’s thought processes from an outsider’s perspective in a way that is difficult to describe. When I tell you there’s a hilarious moment where we’ve just been told how Cristina likes passion, fighting, and chaos by the narrator, and then Patricia Clarkson’s character informs the girls how Juan Antonio is a painter who tried to murder his wife, it seems like an obvious joke that we’ll see Johansson’s face turn intrigued in a heartbeat—but the handling of moments like these is more nuanced than I can described in this review. I looked forward to every moment the narration appeared. Some stories are simply better told with a narrator, screenwriting logic be damned. Within a story in which we can see conflicts of the heart similar to our own, the voiceover allows us to laugh at how hypocritical our choices are, how neurotic we can be, and how we should not try so hard to define what we want to be when our hearts are going to dictate that regardless.

Finally, there’s Allen, who continues to make funny, fascinating, and heartfelt films forty years after his first outing as writer/director. It’d be easy to criticize Allen’s films as being similar for chunks of his career, or to criticize his personal life. I love the majority of Allen’s work, and I find it endlessly interesting to watch his style and his voice progress as he grows older and he changes as a person. Some of the greatest American comedies AND dramas of the last forty years are his, and few people have so successfully molded the two. The fact that Vicky Cristina Barcelona stands somewhere in the lower half of his filmography in terms of quality only underlines that Woody Allen is one of the greatest American filmmakers to ever live.

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~ by russellhainline on January 10, 2009.

One Response to “Vicky Cristina Barcelona: After Forty Years of Directing, Woody Takes On Spain”

  1. Russel,

    stumbled over your blog by mere chance. I am happy to read you liked Vicky Christina Barcelona and find your review well-worded. I absolutely agree on the narrator: it is a great way of telling this story and I wonder if it works just because screenwriting classes tell everyone not named Allen that you cannot pull a stunt like that.

    Anyway, you got a new reader.
    Dominik (yep, the “Hair” guy)

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