Woody yet to crack it

Evan Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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.

Lothario:

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

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