(screened August 29, 2008, posted September 2, 2008)
There have been four phases to Woody Allen’s film career.
There were what was once referred to as his early, funny period.Traditional physical comedy, rooted in Keaton, with a nod to Laurel and Hardy, and even some lines that could have come from Groucho.
Then there was the serious period, mostly in the early 90’s, with turgid dramas set in parlors or upstate mansions, with families trying to hold together against a particular trial.
At the same time Allen was trying out the idea of the mystery, in particular the murder mystery.But of course with a small twist.He did this well, even if he repeated the success of films like Crimes and Misdemeanors with his own British version, Matchpoint.
And in recent years Allen has accepted that people do swear, do engage in unusual behavior, and do have skeletons in their closet.His films have at times even earned R ratings for language, if not tone.Though that’s not the case here, with this PG-13 rated film, there is proof for all that the 73 year old Allen continues to reinvent himself, resisting the temptation to do precisely as he has done before.
And now, with Vick Cristina Barcelona, he continues to move on, as all good artists do, and trod ahead into territory both familiar and uncharted.
What is familiar is that this is a Woody Allen film through and through.There’s lots of dialogue, witty repartee, examples of salon life, and wonderful visuals of classic architecture.As he has over the years, Allen is able to write for women with clarity, and without reservation.Both of the primary female leads, Rebecca Hall and Scarlet Johansen, are convincing in their roles.Male lead Javier Bardem is his usually exceptional self, as a talented but insecure Lothario, a role dramatically at odds from last year’s Oscar winning portrayal in “No Country for Old Men.”And then there’s Penelope Cruz.Though popping up only periodically, her role, and her character, come to define the film, challenge our notions, and keep us near the edge of our seat, waiting for something else to happen to this woman.
What is unfamiliar is how he allows these characters to explore one another, literally, in what is by far his most sexual, though not sensual, release.In no way could this film be considered soft-core, particularly with its clothes on or off camera love scenes.But any time you introduce the concept of a ménage-a-trois, and then discuss it directly in warm and caring language, you certainly attempt to stretch the bounds of standard cinema.
And that, in short, is what Allen does with Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
As with many of his earlier films, the concept of love is set up early on as not only the question around which the film revolves, but a grail of sorts, a quest that the two primary leads in the film, Vicky and Cristina, set out to find.
Allen does a wonderful job of scene setting for us.We learn within minutes of the standard Woody Allen opening credits, white fonts over black matte with a soft jazz sound under, that our characters are on summer holiday in Barcelona, and even if they don’t share a singular view on love, they share a friendship, which allows them to question, and trust, one another to a great extent.
But this scene setting comes at a price for the viewer. For the first time, Allen resorts to a time worn, but unnecessary device, inserting a narrator into the film.It’s jarring to have this offscreen voice telling us what’s going on with Vicky, and then Cristina, and even more jarring to have this voice come back at times to help us advance the story.Allen usually lets his characters explain themselves, through argument, dialectic, or at times actions.While trial and error can document a means, in this instance the trial leads to error, and a critical one at that.
Our story does move apace, after setting up the conflicting views on love harbored by Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlet Johansen), these college friends arrive at the lavish home of Vicky’s family friends to spend a summer in Barcelona. Within a short time, each woman is challenged on her view of love, by the same individual.Javier Bardem’s Juan Antonio is a standard contemporary Woody Allen male lead, transplanted from New York to Barcelona, of course a man involved with the arts, romantically adventurous, with seemingly boundless energy and patience.
Our troika move ahead with their summer, plans change, relationships evolve, though not as initially anticipated, and then, with the introduction of Penelope Cruz’s Maria Elena, the film takes us beyond the metaphysical, into the gray space where artists aspire to exist, free from the bounds of convention, obligation, or at times, reality.
It is hard to believe that all we see transpiring on screen is supposed to take place over the period of one summer.Even with the advance provided by the narrator, it remains unlikely that even characters such as those presented by Allen would fall in, and out of love so deeply, so passionately, and yet so definitively.
By film’s end, we have had a full fare on screen, with a range of emotions and visuals presented for us.Cruz’s Maria Elena steals the film with her controlled mania, her brilliantly delivered wit, and of course her remarkable beauty, all of which Allen exploits for both comic and tragic gain.But yet we still wonder where we are, where our characters are, whether they have truly learned what we hear our narrator describe, and whether their lives have been changed from the experiences shared in Barcelona.
There could be nitpicking about derivative issues, such as the strict adherence to Spanish as the language spoken in Barcelona, without a single reference being made to Catalan, the native language that is primary in the city and the region.Similar concerns could be raised about the rack focusing of several early shot, many of which were out of focus in order to deliver, but still remained annoying.And in another apparent first, there were examples of scenes where Allen used video dissolves to move from shot to shot.Most films, and all previous Allen films, used hard or straight edits between shots.The dissolve often does soften the image and scene, but is not a successful device in this film.
This film does reinforce Allen’s role as an auteur, and as a filmmaker willing to experiment with new forms.Hopefully, should he continue to focus his lens overseas, or at least outside of area codes 212, 646, and 917, he will give more than a nod to local issues and dialects, much in the way he did with earlier successes such as Annie Hall, and Manhattan.