Sunday, Aug. 17, 2008

Woody Allen's Latest Film

By David Luhrssen
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For the fourth in a series of films made outside of his beloved New York, Woody Allen movies from Great Britain to sunnier climes. Set in Spain, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an ocean away from his mature Manhattan comedies geographically, but emotionally it might as well be just across the Hudson. A rueful examination of love, desire and the impossibility of achieving happiness, VCB unfolds in a dreamy Europe where everyone is a poet or a thinker and great conversations spark to life around copious glasses of wine even in the humblest cafés.

VCB also reiterates Henry James with its pair of comfortably well-off Americans abroad, painfully learning the sophisticated ways of the Old World. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is serious, sensible and intellectual, engaged to a shallow if benign young professional for reasons more pragmatic than passionate. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is flighty, careless and artistic, engaged to no one and willing to gamble with her heart. They are summering in Barcelona with Vicky’s patrician expatriate family friends, taking their dinners on the tiled terrace of an airy villa and taking in the sights, especially the fantastic architecture of Antoni Gaudi, whose apartment blocks and cathedrals are curvaceous as the bodies of a hundred beautiful woman.

The balmy city, ripe and juicy as a vineyard at harvest time, is home to the Abstract Expressionist painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a prowling sensualist with haunted bedroom eyes. He’s as straightforward and unblinking in his way as Bardem’s angel of death in No Country for Old Men. With barely a preamble after he approaches the girls at a bistro, Juan Antonio invites Vicky and Cristina to fly with him in his private plane to a resort an hour’s distance. Once there, they will look at inspiring art, eat well, drink wine and make love—all three of them, together.

Vicky rolls her eyes. Cristina is intrigued. They end up journeying with their new artist friend on a sexual-romantic side trip where nothing turns out as expected. Eventually Juan Antonio’s suicidal ex-wife reenters the picture, the smoldering and jealous Maria Elena (a combustible Penelope Cruz). She is the unhappy and unbearable love of his life; perhaps Juan Antonio sees a sliver of Maria Elena in every woman he desires.

Juan Antonio is probably Woody Allen’s philosophical stand-in. Trying to erase the nil from nihilism, he espouses the doctrine that human existence is short, dull, painful and without meaning, so why not enjoy the good things life can offer? A note of fear creeps into Juan Antonio’s discourse occasionally; he carries himself with the heavy melancholy of a man for whom the season is always autumn.

By summer’s end none of life’s choices seem especially attractive. Should Juan Antonio and Maria Elena try to reignite their flammable relationship? Or Cristina leave her dreams to bedtime and get a more solid grip on reality? Or Vicky dump her materialistic fiancé and his circle, who have nothing to talk about aside from their new high-tech toys?

The lightly ironic voiceover narration (intoned by Christopher Evan Welch), which provides VCB with its episodic structure, imbues the proceedings with dry comedy. But the sadness of living without purpose or direction permeates even the most amusing moments. The looseness of the acting and the scenario and the bright terracotta setting help distract the eye and imagination of the viewer from the ineffable melancholy underlying the film.

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