Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Written and directed by Woody Allen

Starring Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz

 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Notice that there are no commas in the title; it's because we are expected to treat them all equally, and in Woody Allen's new film we do. Two young women, best friends from New York, Vicky and Cristina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) come to Barcelona to spend the summer with Vicky's relatives who live there (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn). Vicky is studying Catalan culture (though let's point out to Mr. Allen that she has no Spanish to speak of). One evening they're taken to an art opening where they spot a handsome Spaniard, the painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). Later that evening as they are eating at a restaurant they spot him again. He comes over and asks them politely to join him in a weekend visit to Oviedo ("A short plane ride away") to see the sights and sleep with him ("Both of us?" "If you wish.")

Naturally there are complications: Vicky is already engaged to be married as soon as she returns to the United States. Juan Antonio is divorced from his wonderfully sexy, out-of-control ex-wife (PenÚlope Cruz), who, we're told, either tried to kill him with a knife or perhaps it was the other way round; the story as we get it is a bit muddled, but intriguing nevertheless. So in a leisurely way the film follows first one, then another of these unfolding relationships. It would be unwise to tell you more than that; half the joy of the film is waiting to be told the next episode as it happens.

Mr. Allen seems to have been artistically renewed by his move to Europe ("Match Point," "Cassandra's Dream" and now this - let's try to forget the "Scoop" disaster), and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is one of the loveliest films he's made in a long time. But he's also apparently mad about Scarlett Johansson, whom he used in "Scoop," which is a shame because she is not an actress. When you watch her on screen, she does not have the actress's ability to relate to whomever she's in the scene with; she remains Scarlett Johansson, she turns everything in on herself, as a model does, and yet she cannot make contact even with the camera itself; she's too self-absorbed. There is a revealing moment in this film: Johansson is taking photos of Cruz, a kind of modeling moment with Cruz simply posed against a city wall, and Cruz (who used to be a model but has made the transition into being a great actress) has no trouble involving us in her camera personas - she's sexy, she's mysterious, she's marvelously intriguing as we see the stills of the camera session, while Johansson remains as dull as ever.

All of which is a shame for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," and yet the film easily survives that one casting mistake. Rebecca Hall, who had a small part in "The Prestige," is terrific, as are Bardem and Cruz. This is a more than charming film, with insights into love and its many manifestations, as well as affairs and marriages that are sad and frustrating failures. It's Woody Allen's most relaxed and rewarding film in ages.

8/15/08