One of the most annoying things about being a writer is that I’m best able to process things with my pen or at my keyboard when I’ve had a moment to let things sink in. I’m a big believer in note-taking, especially in film criticism because automatic writing allows some pools of unrealized creativity to eke out. Sometimes I discover things of which I’d been previously unaware until I read back the barely legible sentence fragments I’d scribbled out on a tiny notebook in a darkened theatre. Yet, as a writer first and foremost, I have a harder time with extemporaneous speaking.
The wonderful PR agencies and studio representatives who are kind and courageous enough to screen their films for us wait expectantly with notebooks in their own hands in well-lit lobbies, hoping to get our immediate reactions. Often I struggle to come up with something that’s not only intelligent but balanced. If I hate a film, as a polite Midwesterner (or it could be just feminine instinct), I always find that I want to find something — anything — to say about it that’s positive before I apologetically express my dislike.
Yet, intriguingly, when I’m blown away by a film, often I’m nearly equally at a loss for words. Case in point: Vicky Cristina Barcelona. On the surface, it begins as a typical Woody Allen film with a European feel including a voice-over narration which in this case works well since the setting is Barcelona as we follow two American female tourists on summer holiday. Predictably, issues of love, sex, infidelity, and artistic temperament come into play, per Allen’s most frequently visited themes.
Yet, as a huge Allen fan who’s seen every one of his films (including some I can practically recite from memory), I couldn’t get over the feeling that had I walked into the theatre after his traditional black and white credits had rolled. Just five minutes late and with no prior knowledge of the piece, I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years that it was a film made by Woody Allen.
And admittedly some of his works — even the light, entertaining trifles of the past few years — have felt self-conscious and claustrophobic, which make his epic tragedies like Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream far greater by comparison. However, I'm thrilled to write that Vicky Cristina Barcelona is breezy, earthy, intoxicating, and frankly, sexy as hell.
And yes, I’m aware that as a professional, “sexy as hell” isn’t the most astute observation yet as the only female critic in attendance with a small crowd of men no doubt hoping to ogle Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz’s much-discussed “threesome” (which ultimately consists of a passionate kiss and discussion), I felt a need to represent how the film played to a female audience and one of the first phrases out of my mouth to the eager representative was in fact “sexy as hell.”
Sex has always been Allen’s topic de jour, but whereas it’s been so cerebral in his other films, discussed to death so that it’s nearly clinical (for example, Annie Hall), this film celebrates love, sexuality, and humanity in a life-affirming and dare I say optimistic approach, atypical of the notoriously pessimistic, introspective Allen.
Why so sexy, you may ask? Well, surely the country’s setting helps, photographed to breathtaking effect by award-winning Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Talk to Her, The Sea Inside, The Others) as does the beauty of the film’s leads including Johansson and Cruz, but mostly, the sex appeal is best personified in the unexpected, pitch-perfect, dreamy performance by Javier Bardem.
Bardem, best known to audiences for his Oscar winning turn playing the “bubonic plague”-likened killer in the most recent Best Picture winner, No Country for Old Men, continues to amaze, showing colors to his personality we never knew existed such as warm humor and irresistible mischief, and Barcelona makes terrific use of his range from the start.
Although one could nearly anticipate the internal groans in audience members as the film began using a lengthy narrative voice-over by introducing us to our leads, ultimately the old-fashioned technique sort of fades into the background as the film goes on — still commenting, yet in a way that never overpowers the main storyline. Quickly we become acquainted with best friends, the grounded and responsible Vicky (Starter for 10 actress Rebecca Hall) and the often dissatisfied, feisty, and passionate Cristina (Allen’s latest muse, Scoop and Match Point star Scarlett Johansson). Whereas Vicky has her life all planned out, pursuing a Master’s Degree in Catalan Identity and planning an upcoming wedding to the decent, stable, and successful Doug (Chris Messina), Cristina is endlessly searching for any new adventure to whisk her away.
They both get much more than they bargained for when, staying with family friends (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn), Cristina catches sight of the smolderingly mysterious presence of Bardem’s Juan Antonio, an artist still reeling from a bad breakup with his ex Maria Elena (Cruz) who tried to murder him before they parted. Whereas most women would run screaming in the other direction upon hearing tales of domestic violence, Cristina becomes all the more intrigued, later using her feminine wiles to attract his attention at a nearby bar. A few hair tricks and eyelash bats later, Juan Antonio is soon at their table, first asking if the two women are American before fixating on Cristina with the painterly come-on, “What color are your eyes?”
Predictably, loosened up by the wine, thrown off her game by his gaze, and generally disoriented by her foreign surroundings, Cristina falls for it hook, line, and sinker. Vicky is far more skeptical, especially when, just seconds after he begins chatting them up, he proposes the two travel with him by plane for the weekend to Oviedo, in order to look at a favorite statue of his, drink wine, and make love in an only-in-the-movies speech which recalls Sirk’s Written on the Wind. And while we can sense Cristina mentally packing her bag, Vicky finds his bravado obnoxious, telling him off before ultimately, and predictably, she ends up going along to chaperone her friend.
Of course, once they arrive in Oviedo, Vicky is quick to realize that she may have misjudged the painter and soon, both women are taken with Juan Antonio, which sends Vicky into a guilt-stricken panic as she’s promised to the dull but secure Doug and Juan is endlessly prone to obsessing about his ex. Things get far more complicated when, late into the picture, Maria Elena reenters his life in a firestorm of neurosis and passion.
Cruz attacks the role with a fearlessness we’ve never seen before and she’s sure to generate Oscar buzz for a performance that for once doesn’t treat her as an exotic, angelic beauty, but celebrates the complexity of her larger-than-life artistic ability. Allen, who had only seen the actress in her Oscar nominated Volver according to the press notes, was thrilled when Cruz’s reps contacted him directly upon learning that his latest feature was to be set in her homeland. And while, she picks up the pace considerably, it’s relatively easy to get swept up in the spark-filled scenes between her and Bardem without realizing just how good some of the supporting players are in the less showy roles. This is most notably easy to do with the talented Rebecca Hall’s understated, subtle and contemplative Vicky as well as Johansson, who, in her third collaboration with the auteur, is game for anything he throws her way.
With what could have been a rather obvious send up of Jules and Jim, Woody Allen finally hits his stride with this frothy, sexy work. Undeniably hip, refreshing, and wonderfully indicative of the twenty-first century, Vicky Cristina Barcelona showcases a side of Allen that wasn’t evidenced in the classically executed (enjoyable yet mild works) The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Small Time Crooks, and Hollywood Ending.
Although given the gorgeous leads and locales, all audiences are sure to find themselves taken in by the film’s sex appeal, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an entirely welcome summer inclusion for sophisticated, thinking women after several months of fun yet admittedly testosterone-fueled juvenile buddy comedies and CGI-driven superhero pictures.
And much like fellow New York filmmakers Martin Scorsese before him did with The Departed and Spike Lee offered with Inside Man, Allen has released one of his best works in years, by widening his lens, opening his mind, and traveling to Spain. Oh and by the way, did I mention that it’s sexy as hell?