Friday, February 24, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.23: Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Grade: 82 (A-)
With his move from New York to London in Match Point, Woody Allen seemed revitalized as a director, but his next two London projects were less successful (I’ve decided not to cover them, as nobody likes them and they weren’t freely available to me). 2006’s Scoop was a weak farce in the same style as Allen’s early-2000s efforts, complete with a schtick-laden performance from Allen (his last acting role until the release of Nero Fiddled later this year). 2007’s Cassandra’s Dream, meanwhile, was widely seen as a Match Point-retread (itself a bit of a Crimes and Misdemeanors-retread) which unconvincingly explored working-class London. 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona saw Allen traveling again, this time to Spain. But where Match Point showed Allen reenergized as a director but in poor form as a writer, Vicky Cristina Barcelona showed Allen at the top of his game for his best film since 1992’s Husbands and Wives.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are American college graduates vacationing in Barcelona for the summer before Vicky’s wedding to Doug (Chris Messina). Vicky is a practical, neurotic woman with a strong belief in the importance of commitment. Cristina is more impulsive, has no idea what she wants in love and life, but knows “what she doesn’t want”. One night Vicky and Cristina are approached by Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), a painter who doesn’t hide his attraction to the two and invites them to spend a weekend in his hometown, where they will drink good wine, eat good food, and “hopefully make love”. Vicky is reluctant, but Cristina agrees. Juan Antonio romances both of the women; Cristina moves in with him, and while Vicky and Doug have a surprise wedding in Barcelona, she still harbors feelings for the more lively artist. Cristina and Juan Antonio’s paradise, meanwhile, is interrupted by the arrival of Juan Antonio’s unstable ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz in an Oscar-winning role).
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an exploration of love and relationships in a similar vein to Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters before it, but it never feels, like so many other late-period Woody Allen films, like Woody aping Woody. Allen’s films had been successful in Spain in the past, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a thank you to the country, as well as an acknowledgement of the greatness of Spanish cinema; Allen works with Javier Aguiresarobe, Pedro Almodovar’s cinematographer for Talk to Her, and together they photograph Spain with the combined curiosity of a tourist and knowledge of a resident. Allen reportedly wrote Vicky Cristina Barcelona years before with the intention of shooting in San Francisco, but it’s clear that he did a serious re-write on the material rather than just update a few references (see: Whatever Works). No longer stuck in a city he didn’t truly understand (London), Allen bathes Spain in warmth and romance and makes great use of the country’s great art and music. He’s trying without trying too hard: the film has all the elegance and grace of the best late-period Woody Allen films (Sweet and Lowdown, Match Point) and almost none of their flaws. Bonus: while the film doesn’t contain many of the famous one-liners of earlier Allen films, it still manages to have a rather warm sense of humor, often conveyed from the witty dialogue and performances (Cruz confesses she thought about killing Johansson, who can only reply “…what?”; Juan Antonio flies his plane in a terrible thunderstorm, saying that it’s “nothing serious”) and clever editing.
The warmth and romance carries over to Allen’s handling of the four central characters, all of whom the script (*gasp*) actually cares about, a rarity in late-period Allen films. All four parts are ideally cast: Bardem as the charismatic, romantic Juan Antonio; Rebecca Hall as the neurotic, grounded Vicky; Cristina as the more bohemian, directionless Cristina; and Penelope Cruz as live-wire Maria Elena, an unstable character who never comes off as an awful shrew the way too many late-period Allen characters do. The film uses an omniscient third-person narrator to get inside the heads of the characters, but it never feels overly-expository or inessential. Rather, it gives the film an elegant, poetic warmth towards the four characters as they juggle the difficulties of modern relationships and love.
Cristina is immediately taken with Juan Antonio; Vicky, less so. The three discuss art, music, photography, poetry, and religion (Juan Antonio is an atheist, Vicky believes there has to be something). Juan Antonio believes that sex is never empty so long as there is genuine passion. Vicky is skeptical. Ironically, she makes love to Juan Antonio before Cristina, whose ulcer acts up just before the two were about to get together. Juan Antonio charms Vicky first by introducing her to his father, a poet who is “angry at the world” in ways Juan Antonio could never be; it’s an interesting look at an angry old man in the Woody Allen-vein without poisoning the film with misanthropy or judging the tortured poet. Juan Antonio then takes her to see a great Spanish guitar player (Spanish guitar never fails to move Vicky), and the two, slightly drunk, make love. It’s an exhilarating sequence that pulsates with romance and life.
A terrific montage moves through the summer as Vicky and Cristina temporarily go their separate ways, Cristina in a bohemian, art and love focused lifestyle, Vicky with a more traditional life. Cristina and Juan Antonio’s relationship is complicated with the arrival of Maria Elena; Cruz, an Almodovar regular, brings a dangerous and unpredictable energy that shows a dangerous side to bohemian living Cristina was previously unfamiliar with. Maria Elena gives off a feeling that she could say or do anything at any given moment: she speaks in Spanish around Cristina to avoid being understood. She distrusts Cristina for having two different colored eyes. She describes the Chinese language, which Cristina had studied and found beautiful, as a “drill to the head”. Cristina also learns that she might not be as free-spirited as she thought she was- the idea of Juan Antonio making love to both her and Maria Elena makes her uneasy. She’s a good sport though, and for a time the three live a relatively happy existence together, encourage each other’s art, and make love together (the film received a lot of press for a brief kiss between Johansson and Cruz). Eventually, however, Cristina finds that this isn’t for her after all, and the balance the three had struck goes overboard as Maria Elena accuses Cristina of using her and Juan Antonio. Love is an unpredictable, dangerous beast, and break-ups can be ugly.
Meanwhile, Vicky loves Doug, but nice as he is, he’s rather dull; his condescending view of Cristina’s “pretentious contempt for normal values” isn’t without its points, but it highlights his unimaginative nature (also: he really has no taste when it comes to art). Compare this to Juan Antonio, a man full of life and passion, and it’s easy to see how she may have caught Cristina’s “chronic dissatisfaction”. Her final meeting with Juan Antonio doesn’t go so well- she’s uneasy about her desires, and any chance the two had together is ruined when Maria Elena shows up and tries to shoot everyone. As Vicky and Cristina leave Barcelona, the narrator describes their exit: Vicky, moving towards the life she envisioned, and Cristina, searching, “knowing only what she didn’t want”.
With Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen finally returned to the giddy highs of his past and combined it with the elegance and grace of the best works of his present. He wrote three complicated female roles and treated them with warmth and affection rather than disdain. The film was ultimately not a harbinger of good things to come: Allen’s past three films haven’t been anywhere near as good. But if it does end up being the last great film Allen ever makes (and let’s hope not), at least it’s worthy of being put alongside his best.

No comments:

Post a Comment