What could be more romantic than a summer vacationing is Barcelona? You’re surrounded by art, history and breathtaking scenery. You meet people you’ve probably never met before and will most likely never see again. You can immerse yourself in an entirely different culture, learning something new about life and yourself with every passing day. Or, you can leave your every woe from your difficult life behind you and let it all fall away into the ocean. In Woody Allen’s latest, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, Vicky and Cristina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johannson) do just that. Vicky is going to learn while Cristina follows in hope of escape and before the summer is out both will learn that that which is inherently romantic is also inescapably complicated.
Vicky and Cristina are the kind of friends that would likely not become friends if they met at this present moment but are good friends regardless because of a long and cherished history. Vicky is practical to a fault. Everything she does has purpose and function, including her fiancé, Doug (Chris Messina, who played the same “I am everything that is wrong with America today” character at the end of “Six Feet Under”). Cristina cannot stomach settling into herself, as she can’t stand that self, so she recklessly pursues paths of abandon in hopes of finding solace. They are opposite in everything they do, right down to their hair colors, but they find one common interest while abroad, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter with a dramatic reputation. Juan Antonio is a player but he isn’t playing. He’s unassumingly smooth and sexy in shirts and pants that are dressed down by playful sneakers. He is a passionate man and his provocative proposal to have both ladies join him for a weekend of food, music and lovemaking brings out the American prude in both Vicky and Cristina.
Still, the vacation does everybody good, including Allen himself. Stepping out of New York and into London for his (brief) return to form, “Match Point”, rejuvenated a vision that was once great but had recently become monotonously unwieldy. Going to the Barcelona countryside for his 40th feature has a similar effect, in that his vision is refreshingly alive. Still, it is different than the London Allen of late. In Barcelona, it feels as if Allen were on his own vacation. This is Woody in sandals, a loose fitting tee and khakis. Sure, he’s still neurotically smothered in sun block but his grip on the film is relaxed, more organic. In fact, the film’s underlying criticism of American materialism and structure suggest that Allen is happy to be away for a while.
Besides, if he weren’t overseas, he might not have had the chance to work with Penelope Cruz. Cruz plays Marie Elena, Juan Antonio’s ex-wife who tried to kill him before ultimately leaving him. Her insanity is alluded to so often before she actually graces the screen that by the time she does, one shakes with anticipation for her arrival. Cruz’s presence is overwhelming, a tumultuous force that commands attention and can either destroy or nurture from one moment to the next. She elevates the overall quality of the film to exciting heights and it was already pretty great before she got there.
After years of troubled relationships both on and off screen, Allen is still going back for more despite it all. Having been around a few blocks though has given the man a fair amount of insight. He may not know what makes the perfect recipe but he’s still in the kitchen cooking because he knows that when you do get all the ingredients just right, you’re in for one hell of a good meal. He throws all of his characters into the fire knowing full well they will all get burned but that they will also all be better people for it. For all its complications, love or sex or however you choose to define your interaction with another human being (or with two or three for that matter) will ultimately transform you. The same can be said for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, a flame well worth getting close to.
Review by Joseph Bélanger