, 96 min, 2008
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Stars: Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem
Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a sensual, bittersweet dramedy that has all the dramatic heft of a feather and yet is utterly absorbing to watch.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two young American students at liberty for the summer in Barcelona, Spain. Vicky is a straight-laced “Catalan studies” major who has no idea what she’s going “do with that” for certain. She is happily engaged to Doug (Chris Messina), a fairly boring and safe young man who seems like he could provide for her, even if it won’t make her happy. On the other hand, Cristina is the sexually vivacious, impulsive and brash, yet self-effacing, student filmmaker who “just wrote, directed and starred in a 12-minute short film she hates.” Vicky’s relatives, Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark (Kevin Dunn) are keeping an eye on them as they spend their time drinking in the local flavor – the sights, sounds and textures of Barcelona. However, one night, at an art opening, Cristina is intrigued by a dark, handsome stranger in a red shirt.
At dinner later, Vicky and Cristina are approached by this very man: Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, doing a complete 180 after his Oscar-winning turn as a scary psychopath in the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men), a sexy painter who approaches them with a proposition – they will fly with him in one hour to a nearby town, have dinner, drink wine and then the three of them will make love. Vicky is appalled at this suave would-be Don Juan’s advances, but Cristina is intrigued and soon the three of them are on a small plane in a thunder storm. Soon, these three will be entangled in a complex, emotionally tricky menage a trois (though not physically) which involves Vicky balancing a night of passion with Juan Antonio and her rational feelings for her fiancee, Cristina’s own head-over-heels attraction to Juan Antonio and his attempts to have a good time without hurting anyone.
Then enters the firecracker into this scenario: Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) is the beautiful, but psychotically jealous, volatile and high-strung ex-wife of Juan Antonio who still deeply loves him but whose relationship with him “doesn’t work.” For reasons passing understanding, Juan Antonio invites her to sleep off a drastic measure on her part and soon she and he are sharing Cristina’s affections, all the while Vicky stews in unrequited attraction and awaits a prison sentence in her marriage to Doug.
Woody Allen, who wrote and directed, has made a specialty in his career over the past 30 plus years of painting portraits of intelligent, literate and well-spoken characters’ travails in life and in love, and this is no different. However, by moving his story to the beautiful landscapes of Spain, and thanks in no small part to the adept visual stylings of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Talk to Her, Goya’s Ghosts), this is the best-made Allen film in years, if not decades.
Although the characters are the sorts of mid-level neurotics and would-be intellectuals that Allen loves to focus on, and although their dialogue sounds like that of Woody Allen’s characters, this is like an Almodovar film – through a glass, lightly. If I had a major qualm, it was with the dry, superfluous narration of Christopher Evan Welch, who is detatched from the action and who seems to serve no purpose.
There is no grand point, nor a great amount of laughs, but the film is not without a scintilla of humor, some solid, some sly and subtle, and is wonderful to watch and listen to. By summer’s end, all the characters have at least been moved by the emotional weigh station they’ve just passed through, although dramatic changes may not be in the cards. They’re all a bit wiser, with a new experience to learn from and draw on, and maybe they’re better people for it.
Note: The flywheels at the MPAA have rated this PG-13, perhaps appropriately, yet it manages to be the most sensual and seductive non-R-rated film I can remember. Winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (Cruz) and the Independent Spirit Awards for Best Screenplay and Supporting Female (Cruz). Nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead (Bardem).