Balmy Barcelona nights

Lush, seductive setting makes Vicky Cristina Barcelona a rare success

Penelope Cruz plays Maria Elena in Woody Allen’s latest film.
Penelope Cruz plays Maria Elena in Woody Allen’s latest film.
Credit: 
Supplied
Woody Allen’s flick brings irrational characters into one tumultuous love nest.
Woody Allen’s flick brings irrational characters into one tumultuous love nest.
Credit: 
Supplied

This is a fairy tale.

Poets who refuse to publish their poems inhabit aged stone-brick cottages in the Catalan countryside, an unemployed and unskilled twenty-something female has enough disposable income to spend two months lazing around Barcelona and southern France and bohemian artists just so happen to collectively own—and know how to pilot—an airplane which they use to accompany young, naïve American beauties to lavish hotels in quaint Spanish villages.

A predictable fairy tale, no doubt, but a fairy tale that Woody Allen has made so surprisingly accessible, so effortlessly clever, that the film successfully steers away from the looming threat of high-brow cliché—a threat that Woody Allen has made a career out of succumbing to.

What’s more, it’s genuinely seductive; the characters indulge in their irrational emotions and impulses in intoxicating landscapes with bewitching charm (save for the sometimes painful Scarlett Johansson).

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson)—a stringent graduate student and an “at liberty” free spirit, respectively—are staying with Vicky’s family friends in a mansion overlooking Barcelona. The two manage to attract the attention of Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a Spanish painter who is particularly blunt about sex, love and the meaning (or lack thereof) of life. After spending a spontaneous weekend with the suave and, at times, outlandish artist, both women find themselves infatuated with their charming host.

But Vicky’s engagement to a “cookie cutter mould,” a family values man who is the antithesis of Antonio, complicates her Catalan romance and allows Cristina to unknowingly steal Vicky’s stubbly Spaniard. She moves in with Antonio, fraternizes with the Barcelonan bohemian crowd and begins to view herself as an honorary expat, abandoning and condemning the traditions of American culture under the influence of the surreal European high-life. Cue the return of Antonio’s alluring ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) who, quite literally, adds another dimension to Cristina and Juan’s love life. What ensues is pure passion. Passionate affairs, arguments, threesomes and gun duels. The comedy is there, as always, but it’s secondary, symptomatic of a trend in Woody Allen’s recently successful films: where comedic, exercise caution; where dramatic or passionate, embellish. The formula works, not to perfection, but to a well-layered and delivered product that can be categorized as a small success.

Performance is the paradox of the piece. Suffice to say, Vicky and Cristina struggle but Barcelona excels. The Spanish component of Oscar-winning Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz—aided, no doubt, by the beautiful and seductive atmosphere of their homeland—are a delight. Their arguments are equally amusing and convincing, their insanity obvious yet coupled with an indefinable charm.

The Americans, on the other hand, are awkward and overplayed in many of their foreign endeavours. Rebecca Hall is slightly bland, but tolerable, while Scarlett Johansson simply reaffirms my existing disbelief of how she has managed to remain one of Hollywood’s most well known female faces, let alone Woody Allen’s latest muse. She sounds out of place when tries to use the somewhat elevated language of a Woody Allen film, seduces like a teenaged television rom-com actress and seems like an amateur when on screen with the dynamic duo of Cruz and Bardem.

The characters of the Spaniards, as well as the lush setting so well captured by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, supplement Hall and Johansson’s occasionally flawed performance. Cruz’s and Bardem’s characters are so extreme and overwhelming that, in reality, it would be impossible to cope with the intensity of a relationship with them but on screen, their characters are so alluring that any hint of extremity is endearing if not enticing.

The omniscient and Woody Allen-esque narrator is a strange addition to the film. Occasionally, he is necessary to convey the comic nature of a scene or tie loose threads together, but sometimes his presence seems to be a replacement for strong or expressive narrative filmmaking.

Woody Allen also has a fatal flaw in many of his films, and Vicky Cristina is no exception: he refuses to write a script that reads naturally. There will always be a character—Vicky in our case—who must be cerebral, even though this pseudo-intellectualism can often seem forced. Granted, to those who like to see intellectuals and elites interacting in films, this is an appeal, but what films could be made if Allen delved into the lives of the everyman and everywoman. Although not overbearing in this film—part of why I imagine it to be a success—this high brow bent is still apparent.

The film, in all aspects, is about raw emotion and, if you choose to believe it, the incessantly unfulfilling nature of love. It’s about how some contain their love and emotion in accordance with their surroundings, inevitably leading mildly satisfactory yet impassionate lives, and how others wear their wild hearts on their sleeves, living manic lives that can be equally uplifting and disheartening, but altogether exciting.

Luckily, in our case, both are entertaining.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona will be playing at The Screening Room on Princess Street until September 25. Screenings are at 7:00pm and 9:30pm on weekdays, 3:55pm on weekend matinees.

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