Vicky Cristina Barcelona Review
It was no pleasure for me to review Woody Allen's last film, Cassandra's Dream, so harshly and the temptation to think that Woody had lost the plot irrevocably was strong. One sensed in advance that there might be a problem with Cassandra's Dream as the publicity was so low key, almost as if the team were hoping that if they kept quiet about it no one would notice. How different that is from the publicity surrounding Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which made a splash at Cannes, went on to win at the Golden Globes and has had Penélope Cruz widely acclaimed and nominated for her pyrotechnic supporting performance, recently winning the BAFTA award. With the seventy-three year old director still churning out films at the rate of one a year, it has become a cliché to describe one of his better efforts as 'a return to form', but cliché or not Vicky Cristina Barcelona is absolutely, categorically a return to form for Woody Allen.
From the very start it all feels right and we know we're on familiar, comfortable ground. A strident, overly didactic voice-over from Christopher Evan Welch has a perfectly pitched ironic tone, loading us with information on the characters' inner and outer lives in an endearingly conceited fashion. It has something of the quality of the voice-over in Amelie, which in turn draws on a rich seam of European cinema that has informed Allen's work in the past. And to underline the playfulness of this schematic approach, the point is rammed home visually with a split screen between the sensibly brunette Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and the dizzy blonde Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), and everything is set up for a Hannah and Her Sisters-style comedy of manners.
Soon-to-be married Vicky, a graduate student, and somewhat unfocussed filmmaker Cristina, hook up to spend the summer in Barcelona with fellow American couple Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark (Kevin Dunn). Enter mercurial Catalan painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who fulfils all the expectations of the stereotype by attempting to seduce both girls simultaneously at a restaurant one evening. Still basking in the charismatic glow of his role in No Country for Old Men, though with a very different hairstyle, Bardem is on great form. Like Anthony Quinn playing Gauguin, he exemplifies all those smouldering, Latin artistic passions which in equal measure appal and fascinate cerebral, rational types like Vicky and instantly seduce danger-loving free spirits like Cristina.
A loose 'love triangle' scenario ensues, enabling Allen to refract Catalan culture - Gaudí's buildings, Miro's sculpture, and plaintive Spanish guitar - through an American perspective. In one marvellous scene, we meet Juan Antonio's aged poet father, who turns out to be the J. D. Salinger of Catalonia. This change of venue from New York works so much better than with the London films, where Allen attempted to take an insider view of a foreign milieu and rather came unstuck. Here the familiar preoccupations and neuroses of Manhattan get baked in the Spanish sun, and with that juxtaposition the locals emerge as authentic characters. At first a stereotypical Latin lover, Juan Antonio soon reveals his depths and causes Vicky much anguish as she compares him to her straight-laced, Ivy League fiancée Doug (Chris Messina), while at the same time encouraging friend Cristina, who seems the ideal fit for the painter. Allen is an expert on this kind of relationship doubt and vacillation, and as in those great examples of yesteryear - the aforementioned Hannah and Her Sisters and also Husbands and Wives and, of course, Annie Hall - he also retains his aptitude for squeezing the maximum amount of comedy and farce from the situation.
Half way through the film, Juan Antonio's unstable and fiery ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) enters like a hurricane, sweeping away everything in its path. The love triangle becomes a quadrilateral, with unexpectedly droll and volatile consequences. The nature of the dysfunctionality between the ex-couple is both pure Woody Allen and very Latin in character, and the scenes where they are rowing in rat-tat-tat Spanish are a delight. As actors Bardem and Cruz are a superb match and watching them trump and over-trump one another is like watching Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The whole ensemble is excellent and harmonizes wonderfully, from Johansson's dippy Cristina and Hall's angsty Vicky, to the supporting players who feature in nicely woven-in subplots; but ultimately Cruz steals it with a career-best performance of unfettered anarchy - a woman way over the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The blend of Allen's traditional comic pre-occupations with the hot palette and temperament of Spain, and indeed the catchy Spanish tunes, which enliven the soundtrack like the jazz that has worked so well before, combine to make Vicky Cristina Barcelona really gel and as such provide some of that vintage Allen mirth re-minted. The comedy is as edgy and sparkling as ever, and again Allen demonstrates that knack of taking the best actors of the day and making them inhabitants of his unique world. So Woody's mojo hasn't gone for good, and if we can be appalled and super-critical of the misses in his recent output, then we can also be equally celebratory of the hits, of which this is an outstanding example.