Saturday, August 16, 2008

Character, Chracter, Place Name

I am happy to say Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a welcome addition to the Woody Allen canon and his best film since Match Point. Allen's film is about the complicated nature of relationships and the difficulty of romance. It also works as a sharp character study wrought with instances of contradiction and self-delusion.

The titular Vicky and Cristina, a pair of friends vacationing in Barcelona have an immediate and telling moment early on when they disembark the plane and get into a cab. Allen frames the two women in a split screen. Even though they are sharing the back of a cab and could easily fit the frame the two are distinct in character and personality, a study in contradictions even though they inhabit the same space. Vicky (Rebecca Hall, initially a bit frigid and then warms charmingly) is pursuing her post-graduate studies about Catalan culture (though she doesn't really speak Spanish or want to do any sight-seeing) while Cristina (Scarlett Johanson) is fresh of a year's work on a twelve-minute short film and is determined to explore the country with reckless abandon while trying to find her niche in life. Vicky alleged to be happy in her stable relationship with a perfectly pleasant, yuppie fiancé back in New York while Cristina is seeking an unconventional relationship. Both their expectations are turned on their head when they encounter artists Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who propositions them in a restaurant to come with him to a remote island village for a day of sight-seeing and love-making. Cristina is intrigued and Vicky is aghast at the idea and the whole sequence along with the ensuing conversation is a lively and smoldering bit of business that features some nimble dialogue and a masterful performance by Bardem. Another actor could not possible pull off such a seemingly garish action with such appealing results. Bardem, however smolders with his candor and makes Johnason appear deliciously squirmy and excited at the prospect of this dalliance.
Upon arriving in the island the film launches into a brusque montage of the three characters walking through gorgeous Spanish exteriors while a hypnotic Spanish guitar strums in the background. While it seems most likely that Bardem and Johanson are going to consummate the relationship first but the movie zags as it is the happily engaged Hall who falls to Bardem's ample charm. Her reluctance, combined with her more serious demeanor draw in Bardem's artist. But as is re-stated time and again, unfulfilled love is the only true form of romance. The pair's affair is all too brief and Bardem moves on to Johanson but the lingering attraction hangs over the proceedings. Also gumming up the works is Penelope Cruz as Bardem's overly-emotional, perhaps even psychotic, ex-wife. Cruz does some marvelous English language work as her character demonstrates a primal bond with Bardem's. They're bound in a complex relationship wherein the two require a third to balance out the passion that can, at a moments notice, turn to destructive fury or suicidal melancholy. Despite Bardem's constant to protestations to the contrary, it is clear that the two are meant for each other. When Johnaosn becomes the willing third in their bizarre love machinations she too realizes that she's deluded herself into realizing she's less than the Bohemian she thought.
A movie filled with regret and missed opportunities (Patricia Clarkson appears as the dissatisfied woman whose marriage is pleasant but is desperate for the romance her niece Hall is so close to attaining) the film nicely vacillates between moments of unbridled beauty and wistful romance to its more dour feelings. Allen, working with Alejandro Amenabar's DP Javier Aguirresarobe, creates a Barcelona as haunting and majestic as his Manhattan. The film is filled with fine performances, snappy lines, sensual love scenes and a throbbing guitar score. Allen devotees enjoy this fun late-period creative burst.


Football Chick said...

Agreed, great review. I thought Penelope Cruz was amazing, and totally stole every scene she was in. I didn't know she had it in her. Also I think it was a good thing Scar-Jo's character was supposed to be a little stupid, because everyone acted circles around her.

El Gigante said...

Penelope is also pretty damn great in Volver, well worth the rental.