After his disastrous series of English films, Woody Allen finds himself back on track with the award-winning Vicky Cristina Barcelona. On the eve of her wedding, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) travels to Barcelona to research her masters in Catalan identity with best friend, the directionless Christina (Scarlett Johansson). Over several bottles of wine, suave painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) propositions the girls to join him for a weekend in the city of Oviedo. As they both fall for his charms, fiery ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) appears, creating a schism in the fragile relationships being formed under the Mediterranean sun.
To a backdrop of Gaudi architecture and bewitching Spanish guitar, Allen has created a gentle, nervous film that ignores the bombast and criminal melodrama of his most recent pictures. Visually gorgeous, yellows and greens dominate the film. Yet this is a superficial beauty; Allen’s characters are for the most part wracked with doubt and unsure of their hearts desires. Environment is key, as the stifling Barcelona heat stirs the passions of the bored suburbanites. Technically restrained and aided by an occasionally overbearing narrator, the film frequently takes the appearance of an all-out documentary; Allen’s camera capturing his leads out of focus as it peers around corners. Yet, whereas in the past his films have been ninety minute therapy sessions requiring a constant outpouring from his actors, here, too much is left unsaid. While this keeps with the aesthetic of the film, too often Allen fails to develop the characters psychologically. This leaves a visible hole in the screen, the characters remaining mysterious and whimsical from beginning to end.
A major step up from most of Allen’s output over the last decade.
In an awards season defined by career rebuilding efforts, it is perhaps Cruz who comes off best from the film, securing a (mostly) English-language role that requires her to, y’know, act, rather than simply fulfil the ‘kooky’ Spanish archetype that her Hollywood career has so far been plagued by. Johansson remains the most inoffensive actress on the planet, but if her presence has brought Allen’s mojo back to the extent it has here then maybe it’s worth keeping her around. Hall’s is a finely nuanced performance, which holds much promise for her part in Channel 4’s forthcoming Red Riding project. Allen crafts Vicky’s doubts about entering any kind of relationship with more skill than he does Cristina’s vague search for love and identity in the Catalan streets.
Unconventionally handsome, Bardem has charisma to spare. When he gives the girls the choice of staying in Barcelona or joining him in Oviedo, the scene is injected with the same potency with which he ordered a gas-station attendant to call a coin in No Country for Old Men. Far from vintage, this is still a major step up from most of Allen’s output over the last decade. With the success it has garnered, hopefully his return to New York with next film Whatever Works can make it two in a row.