Woody yet to crack it
Javier Bardem makes a move on Scarlett Johansson in a scene from Woody Allen’s latest romantic comedy,
THE new Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona bears some resemblance to Baz Lurhmann’s Australia . And, yes, I’m being serious. In both films the characters are vivid and engaging, the backgrounds have been lovingly captured in all their exotic beauty for the benefit of international audiences, everything is drenched in warmth and sunlight, the story is unbelievable, and the prevailing tone is one of florid, good-natured excess. Both are less than we’d hoped for, but we’ll see them anyway.
At least I hope so. Allen’s films have had mixed receptions since the disappointment of Melinda and Melinda in 2004. Match Point , the first of his English trilogy, was a late highlight of the Allen oeuvre, but Scoop was a mixed bag and Cassandra’s Dream , his previous film, went straight to DVD in this country.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona deserves better. It’s an audacious romantic comedy with a hint of tragedy and a bitter twist towards the end: another of Allen’s meditations on the vagaries of sexual passion and, of all his films, I think the most erotic.
But it’s far from being the masterwork some have called it. Nor is it the sort of film that legions of Allen’s admirers are pining for. There’s no part for Allen himself, and the early background narration, which seems to go on interminably and would have provided a familiar Allen signature for his fans, has been assigned to an unfamiliar voice ( Christopher Evan Welch). Nor is the screenplay ( Allen wrote and directed) bubbling with typical one-liners, and there are no Cole Porter standards on the soundtrack.
For some, all this may be welcome evidence of new directions, a turning away from stale formulas, the rueful introspection and sorrowful humanism that marked the earlier comedies.
The characters are victims of their own follies and impulses rather than the indifferent cosmic fate that was Allen’s substitute for religion.
It’s the story of three women and their entanglement with an unscrupulous Lothario played by Javier Bardem. Vicky ( Rebecca Hall) is engaged to a solid, respectable Manhattan businessman and disapproves of the sexually adventurous lifestyle of her friend Cristina ( Scarlett Johansson). The two arrange to spend a summer together in Barcelona, where relatives of Vicky have offered to put them up. Vicky is researching a masters degree in Catalan identity ( what better place for study?) and Cristina is seeking a change of scene while recovering from the break-up of a disastrous relationship.
After a brief tour of the city’s architecture, the two find themselves at an art gallery, where Cristina is drawn to Juan Antonio ( Bardem), a handsome painter with a scowling air and a scandalous reputation. Did his ex-wife try to kill him, or did Juan Antonio try to kill his ex-wife?
Later at a restaurant, Juan Antonio approaches the women and proposes, after a minimum of formality, that they take a trip with him in his private plane ( Spanish artists can afford such things) to explore the cultural attractions of a provincial city and spend the night together making love. Vicky rejects the suggestion out of hand, but Cristina is intrigued by the stranger’s blunt and charismatic ways and persuades Vicky to join them on the trip.
It’s not long before Juan Antonio is living with one of the women while the other is pining on the sidelines. This less than ideal arrangement is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Juan Antonio’s distraught ex-wife Maria Elena ( Penelope Cruz). Being the perfect gentleman, Juan Antonio has no choice but to take Maria Elena back into his home and look after her. And soon ( to cut a long story short) everyone is sleeping with everyone else.
That should not surprise us. It is usual in Allen’s comedies for relationships to overlap in unexpected ways, but Vicky Cristina Barcelona breaks new ground in exploring all possible amorous combinations. An added layer of misadventure is provided by Vicky’s unhappy Barcelona relative ( Patricia Clarkson).
It’s a hard-working film, rich in possibility but somehow lacking in charm. In the old days we were happy to accept some artificiality in a Woody Allen film when the screenplays went all out for laughs, but when a story teeters on the edge of tragedy and genuinely painful emotion, we are less tolerant of contrivance.
One character speaks of America’s puritanical and materialistic culture ( is this Allen’s message?), but I found little insight into any culture, American or otherwise.
The characters are stereotypes: Vicky the sensible one with brittle defences, Cristina the romantic dreamer, Maria Elena a hysterical personification of the lusty Mediterranean shrew. I miss the irony that marked Allen’s earlier attempts at serious themes in Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanours .
The acting goes some way to rescue the film from banality. Cruz does her standard version of Latin tempestuousness, and Hall ( the daughter of Peter Hall, the English stage director) is all the sexier for her straitlaced attitudes.
Johansson, fast becoming the Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow of Allen’s mature years, treads a deft path between sensuousness, vulnerability and self-delusion.
But the film belongs to Bardem. Memories of his serial killer in No Country for Old Men are still too fresh for an easy transition to the role of serial seducer. At least I thought so in Love in the Time of Cholera . But he anchors Allen’s film with a performance of demonic intensity and fascination. As the insouciant artist, daubing away at his canvases and inhabiting some higher plane of thought and morality, he’s a modern equivalent of Trevor Howard’s romantic intellectual: courteous, sweetly reasonable, opportunistic and relentless in his seductive pursuits.
Barcelona is no country for lovelorn young women, and none can resist him. One suspects that Allen can’t resist him either. He may be secretly envious of his hero’s power to charm.
There is a rich study to be made of the late works of respected directors: Sidney Lumet, Clint Eastwood, Robert Altman and the rest. Allen belongs in the same exalted company but has yet to make the mature masterpiece his ageing fans are waiting for.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona