Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Vicky Christina Barcelona

"Juan is the Loneliest Number That You'll Ever Do"
"To Javier and Javier Not"

"Vicky Christina Barcelona" (Woody Allen, 2008) The latest film in what will, no doubt, be called Woody Allen's "Scarlett" period, "Vicky Christina Barcelona" was shot almost totally in Spain, and benefits from the change of location. It's a large part of what drives the plot and the two women who vacation in Spain for different purposes.

Vicky (Christina Hall) is studying Catalan architecture (particularly Gaudi), and spends the time in Spain as a prelude to getting married to staid, reliable Doug (Chris Messina). Christina (Scarlett Johansson) has just written and directed an 18 minute film starring herself, and broken up with the latest in a series of men in impetuous affairs. She has no business in Spain, but goes to spend time with Vicky and get away. Vicky values the safe and dependable. Christina is searching, "certain only of what she doesn't want," as explained by a ubiquitous Narrator (Christopher Welch), whose constant comments make the film feel less a visual experience than a story with pictures.
While in Spain, the two women are approached by darkly handsome artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who offers to fly the women to the town of Oviedo for the weekend to view the Gaudi works, drink wine, and make love. Vicky thinks Juan is a creep. Christina is intrigued, but both women end up going, Vicky to protect her impetuous friend.

Juan is soulful, attentive, but it is obvious he is in love with his ex-wife Maria Elena (
Penelope Cruz), despite the fact a) they couldn't make it work, and b) she stabbed him in a rage. ("Oh, that..." she says dismissively when it's brought up)
Things get complicated, but never enough for the Narrator to be lost for words or explanations, and when Maria Elena shows up again in Juan Antonio's life, the movie turns, at equal turns poetic, and dangerous. Despite the mannered ways that Allen's films can frequently turn out, this group of actors is particularly well-suited to working outside of Allen's tic's and rhythms. The closest any of the characters come to the Allen neurotic persona (a staple in Allen's films, either played by Allen or a stand-in) is Vicky, but she's much more sure of herself, if not her situation.

Bardem is sadly, relaxed in the film, but Penelope Cruz is a force of nature, this generation's Sophia Loren. After being stuck in some unmemorable films with some straight-jacketed performances, the last few years and films have displayed a bravura presence, and she runs a gamut of emotions in this one to full effect. It's a tough role to pull off--she's held up as an icon until she appears, and when she shows up later in the film, arriving bedraggled from the hospital after a suicide attempt, Cruz more than fills the bill, with her extremes of behavior never seeming contrived or phony. And Johansson has rarely been better represented on-screen--one close-up in particular of Christina listening to Juan Antonio explaining his love for his ex-wife fairly burns on the screen with resentment.

It may ultimately prove to be a minor Allen film, but as a change of pace and an expansion of style it couldn't be more successful.

"Vicky Christina Barcelona" is a matinee.

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